For centuries, humans have built cities on top of cities. The United States is no different. The history of the Seattle Underground is a testament to this common international practice. The Seattle Underground is a system of underground pathways and basements in the city that serve as a reminder that Seattle was once a lower elevation. Once Seattle was elevated, the underground city was born and now serves as a tourist attraction.
The history of the Seattle Underground began after the Great Fire destroyed the city. Instead of rebuilding the city as it was, of wood, city leaders decided to employ an alternate solution. They decided to use brick and stone so as to avert being consumed by another inferno. The rebuilding project elevated the city and what was once ground level became an underground relic.
The city of Seattle accomplished this by grading the streets one to two stories higher than they originally were. The higher elevation not only increased the height of the city, it also helped with the city's plumbing systems. Now, individuals no longer worried about gravity-assisted flush toilets backing up in Elliot Bay during high tide.
The concrete lined streets formed narrow alleys between walls and buildings on both sides of the roadway. The workers used the steep hillsides in the city's topography and a network of water channels to move material into the wide alleys. This raised Seattle 12 feet higher than it had previously been. In some places, the elevation reached as much as 30 feet.
In the beginning, pedestrians had to climb ladders to navigate between streets and sidewalks in front of buildings. The construction of brick archways helped with this transition within the city. City leaders constructed skylights to assist pedestrians. The installation of these lights initiated what would come to be known as Seattle Underground.
Businessmen anticipated the gradual disuse of what was once their ground floors and reconstructed their buildings accordingly. Instead of doing major reconstructions to the bottom part of their edifices, they concentrated on their new ground levels and performed massive redecoration projects. The completion of the new sidewalks officially ushered in a new era for businesses as they moved above the surface.
Pedestrians continued using the underground sidewalks until the city condemned it in 1907 out of fear of the bubonic plague. Underground Seattle began deteriorating or only being used as a storage area. Eventually, it became a place of ill-repute, serving as a home for illegal flophouses, gambling facilities, speakeasies, prostitution and drug trafficking.
Eventually, the area became a tourist attraction. In 1965, local resident Bill Speidel saw the profits that could be made if Seattle Underground was opened for tours. Tourists paid for the privilege of exploring areas underneath shops and historic Pioneer Square. In order to make the tour interesting, Speidel concocted urban legends and talked about the counterculture that once existed under the city.
In 2004, an adults-only Underground Tour opened and appealed to people's lurid curiosities. They discussed the history of prostitution, the opium trade and other R-rated topics about the area.
With the passage of time, Seattle Underground has been one of the most popular tours of the city. Because the profits have been steady, the area has been refurbished when the need arises. Both locals and visitors flock to the attraction to hear the stories of what once was under the city of Seattle.