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, Amazon.com, 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.

A good way to get your bearings here is to stand over a city manhole cover. Thanks to public arts programs, many covers have city maps cast in bronze on them. Train your eye mid-Pioneer Square and you'll see the clashing plats of the city's original layout, mismatched streets that reflect the mismatched egos of the city's two biggest movers and shakers.

One was the hard-drinking, big-hearted, visionary bigamist David "Doc" Swinson Maynard, who owned the land at the north and insisted that the streets align to the cardinal points of the compass. The other was teetotaling, upright, uptight Arthur Denny, who owned the land to the south and insisted that the streets be laid parallel to the shore of the bay.

Neither compromised.

It was a nice example of what my underground tour guide termed the True Seattle Spirit of the pioneers. "No matter how bad your idea was, you just stuck to it," she said.

Guides on Bill Speidel's Underground Tour are known for their cheeky spiel. The popular year-round tour is named for the lively promoter-historian who, with help from local high school students, excavated the first level of Seattle civilization -- at least the White Man's version of it.

Surely the man for whom the town is named, the friendly if fatalistic Indian Chief Sealth (pronounced See-alth), had different tales to tell. "Let him [the White Man] be just and kindly with my people," he is loosely quoted as saying, "for the dead are not powerless."

The underground is Seattle's figurative basement, home of the first miserable settlement laid atop mucky tidal flats. It flooded with such frequency and, as noted, stunk so profoundly, that city leaders finally decided to sluice off surrounding hillsides and bury it after a fire tore through downtown in 1889.

They built up slowly. First on the list were one-story retaining walls to hold landfill for the new streets. That left storefronts and sidewalks still on the basement level and streets high above. Crossing the street to reach a store could mean climbing a 30-foot ladder. "It was like a giant Belgian waffle," said Dean, pointing to the uneven sidewalk outside an 1800s bank. "The syrup was down here."

Once the tide-level layer was filled in, everyone moved upstairs. First floors of buildings became basements -- or abandoned dens attracting two-legged scoundrels and four-legged rodents. Bricked-over sidewalks became tunnels. Second and third floors became Seattle's new street-level entries.

The newly risen city soon prospered. A visit to Pioneer Square's Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, actually a small one-room museum, illustrates why. Inside are gold pans, sourdough starters and slow-focus photos of the Alaskan gold rush that brought thousands of miners through Seattle to outfit for their trip north in the late 1890s.

Merchants struck gold. Their sales had totaled $300,000 annually before the gold stampede hit. After the first year the figure was $25 million. Everyone, from hookers to farmers to poker sharks, took advantage of the miners milling the streets. "Flop in the hay. Six bits," read a sign on a barn.

By 1908, the stampede was over, the economy calmed and the decaying underground was boarded up. It would not be opened again until the 1960s, when Speidel and other determined preservationists successfully organized to save Pioneer Square from the bulldozers.

Walking through Seattle's underground is a deliciously eerie experience. It is cold, dark, ramshackle and smells of mildew -- more a World War III zone than a Disneyfied amusement. Locals say ghosts live down here. I found it easy to believe as I walked past leaning frames of mercantile stores and hotels, past the haunts of gamblers and prostitutes and entrepreneurs who hawked opium tonics, the aspirin of the day, and a red hot chili enema, the cure for their addiction.

I pulled my coat a little tighter, thinking how easily history can be lost, how strong its voices are when heard and how the chief had it right. The dead are not powerless. Not in the end.

M .L. Lyke last wrote for Travel about Seattle's Experience Music Project.

© 2001 The Washington Post Company