The Inside Story: Going Underground in Seattle

By M. L. Lyke
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 7, 2001

An early Seattle settler commented wryly that you could smell the city a mile or two before you ever saw it. This was especially true after high tide, when water flooded sea-level streets and the ingenious new flushing devices marketed by a Mr. Thomas Crapper tended to back up and erupt.

"The tide came in with amazing regularity," noted K .D. Dean, the droll tour guide who led us down into the dank, strange, almost-forgotten city-within-a-city that lies beneath modern Seattle.

As I navigated the subterranean walkways, dodged cobwebs and checked for rat droppings ("the caviar of the underground," said the guide), I mulled how today's sensibly shod city natives grouse not about the smell of raw sewage but about the odor of new money.

With an average age hovering around 38, an average income of more than $57,000 and a population increasingly imported from elsewhere, Seattle is fast becoming Slick City -- and it's not just the rain. This is a young techie Tomorrowland, a city known for the new.

Towers of glass and steel rise hundreds of feet above the working waterfront, loftily detached from the swampy tidal funk below. Inside them, tales abound of stock-option millionaires burning up plastic at the city's new chi-chi boutiques and buying $500,000 lakeside ramblers as "tear-downs" for $5 million waterfront estates.

The colorful 19th-century port populated with rugged dreamers and randy scammers has become a fast-forward, over-caffeinated metropolis known as home to Microsoft,, Starbucks and the $240 million Experience Music Project, the world's most expensive rock-and-roll museum.

That heaving, multicolored structure inspired by smashed guitars is several universes removed from the handsome, heavy-browed turn-of-the-century buildings in Pioneer Square, Seattle's birthplace, and one corner of the city still celebrated for the old, not the new.

This wonderfully restored 16-square-block historic district, with its high concentration of Victorian Romanesque buildings, antique three-ball streetlight fixtures and hand-carved mahogany bars over which gold miners once swapped nuggets for bustierred madams, is the best place to start a historic investigation of Seattle.

The grand old buildings are adorned with ornamental cornices, stone-carving details over arched windows, imported granite and sandstone columns, and fanciful terra-cotta lions staring blankly over entryways. Inside are import shops, espresso bars, dance clubs, restaurants, specialty bookshops and dozens of galleries.

One of Pioneer Square's most beloved buildings is the Smith Tower, a 42-story skyscraper with a Venetian-style bell tower and white terra-cotta facade. Owned by Lyman Cornelius Smith, the man behind Smith Corona typewriters, the tower was the tallest west of New York when it opened in 1914. "Seattle was always trying to put itself on the map, and the Smith Tower was one of the ways they did it," said Duse McLean, who leads Seattle Walking Tours through the historic district.

The little-skyscraper-that-could has its original ornate brass Otis elevators -- still run by smartly uniformed, ever-so-polite operators. On weekends, for a mere $4, visitors can ride to the 360-degree observation deck for a vintage vantage that sweeps from the jagged-toothed Cascade Mountains to the hypothermic green waters of Elliott Bay, now crisscrossed with the white wakes of ferries, tugboats and container ships.

Looking directly down affords a bird's-eye view of the nation's first Skid Road, so named after pioneer businessman Henry Yesler rolled fresh-cut timber down the hill to his waterfront sawmill in the mid-1800s. In later years, the area became a hangout for drunks and ne'er-do-wells, one of the roughest Skid Roads on the Pacific Coast. Surrounding streets are still home to the homeless, and heavily patrolled by police cruisers.

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