Seattle Underground with Beneath the Streets

Beneath the streets of Pioneer Square lies the remnants of ‘Old Seattle’, where you can get a glimpse of the city’s early days. The Underground is a network of basements, tunnels, and passageways underneath Pioneer Square in downtown.  On June 6, 1889, a cabinet maker accidentally lit up and overturned a glue pot. What ensued was the Great Fire of Seattle.

The Great Seattle Fire destroyed the entire business district of the city. It only took a few hours to burn about 25-31 blocks (the number of blocks vary depending on which website you read – sources pulled from wiki and atlas obscura).

Can’t quite remember but I think the guide said that wood was processed here where the toy store is today.

Most of the old city was built of wood and built on tidal flats which meant they had to deal with high tide and flooding since the settlement was at or below sea level. In the late 1800s, bathrooms were outhouses which meant a hole in the ground and during high tide, it would all rise up (icky!). Logging was a major industry and timber was affordable but wood burns easily.

The guide said the owner of the bar bought up the area of Pioneer Square to restore and preserve it but ran out of money. Sadly, restoring and preserving often times costs more than building new.

Skylights were needed for light in the underground city.

The fire started in a cabinet shop which also meant flammable materials like wood chips and turpentine in a wooden structure. The fire got out of control quickly.

When you see glass in the floor, you are standing above the underground city.

We toured the underground with Beneath The Streets with Carla, was our guide. I don’t remember hearing this on tour but it’s written on wiki – At the time, Seattle’s water supply was provided by a private company, Spring Hill Water Company. Fire hydrants where on every other block and many pipes were small and made of hallowed out logs which burned in The Great Fire. Many hoses were used to combat the fire and  water pressure dropped to the point where they didn’t work.

Maybe next time we’ll catch a comedy act for laughs and so we can hang out in ‘Old Seattle’.

Tacoma was able to see the smoke from the fire and hear the city falling to flames. Help was called from Tacoma, Portland and Victoria, British Columbia. The fire burned for hours and finally went out in the wee hours of the next day.

Oy, what a nightmare of a story! This incident led to a more efficient city. One built less flammable (stone), elevated the city (no more sewage floating at high tide, yay!), creation of a professional fire department by October 1889 (all volunteer), and the city created it’s own water supply, adding more hydrants, getting rid of the wooden pipes and increasing their size.

The tour was packed with lots of history and we highly recommend it. Unfortunately, history gets lost to time and development. Vic’s brother interned in Seattle back in college in the late 1990s and told us about the Underground. We didn’t get to see much because a lot has been developed and/or the basements are part of private businesses and they can do what they want with the space. The underground has rich history in the founding days of Seattle and too bad it is being developed over. I wish there was a compromise between preservation of history and development.

It was really cool learning about the changes made to the city. Like 1st Avenue today was Front Street back then and closer to the waterfront. The hills have actually been eroded down so make them less steep so these hills killing my knees would have been worse if it wasn’t for this.

There were lots of cool history facts but one which stood out was from the rebuilding days. It took a little while to rebuild and raise the city. So that meant 2 years of walking up and down ladders until the sidewalks were filled in. Imagine wearing a dress from the late 1880s and having to climb up and down a ladder? It was during the rebuilding period the underground was created because business had to keep running.

The Underground is a story of resilience and innovation.  Seattle would condemn it in 1907 because it became a breeding ground for diseases like bubonic plague. The underground was used as storage and/or neglected. Some became speakeasies, opium dens, flophouses, and gambling halls. In the 1960s, a local entrepreneur began giving tours of the underground. Today you will get an earful of history with Beneath the Streets and a glimpse of Seattle before and during the restoration of The Great Fire.

Click here to read about Seattle’s oldest bar.


19 thoughts on “Seattle Underground with Beneath the Streets

  1. Thanks for an enlightening look under ground. It is such a shame how often we all appreciate the value of history when it is too late, when it has been lost to so-called progress. I don’t want to halt progress, but it would be good if we could pay a little more attention to what should be preserved for the benefit of us all before we accept the inevitable advance of capitalism.

    1. Wish there was a way to save history. We’re like the old farts in our group of friends. The Brooklyn Museum was designed by the same people at The Met. One year they renovated and the beautiful staircase outside that matched the building perfectly was changed to a modern glass one. We absolutely hate it. One artsy friend was saying it’s just like the Louvre. Seriously, they are blind because the glass pyramid isn’t attached to the building and didn’t alter anything. Sadly, the Brooklyn Museum had to do it because it doesn’t get as much traffic and that helped. Wish more people appreciated history. Don’t know many except my blogging buddies. On my Dad’s side a lot of us are history buffs, Vic appreciates it but doesn’t go out of his way (he’s more science and math).

    1. It was cute. We really like Pioneer SQ, we tend to like it a bit gritter. We had fun in Chinatown. Have no idea why but we always visit Chinatown if there is one. Guess we like to compare. We found that big Asian market (forgot the name) and kinda went nuts buying a lot of Totoro stuff. I love him. We always thought we’d move to another city but the more we travel we realize we like were we are. But Vic is one Trump incident away from going to Toronto. Seriously, we’ve been asking all the Canadians around what jobs are available, how easy is to get a banking job, etc. We heard Toronto is the best bet. We hear from relatives on the west coast that Chinese food is better on the East Coast. We like Seattle for a short visit and connecting with other bloggers. We met Travel Gourmand but the schedule didn’t work with 3 others, next time. It’s a lot easier to go home from Seattle. We have to transfer flying home from Vancouver Island. We’d rather take a farry and fly nonstop from Seattle. And, we aren’t that into the food on Vancouver Island so Seattle is a great way to end the trip. We thought Banff food was going to be like Vancouver Island but it was really good. I don’t normally like Greek or Korean but Banff’s was yummy. It’s weird, we’ve lived in NY our whole lives so we really are kinda bored too. We like the 24 hr everything, we have tons of choices for food, mass transit is 24 hrs, theatre – these things makes us realize we can’t leave. We also like our water. Iceland wins for water, then Aruba, and NY 3rd.

      So cool you went on the same tour. Wish we could have seen more basements. Vic’s bro visited the underground in the late 90s. It sounded so much bigger. We want to do a ghost tour for silly fun next time.

      1. We had similar experience with Albertan food, Banff and Jasper both had great food choices. We do not have many Korean joints in the UK, so was good to try some in Canada.
        Canmore had this amazing Brazilian barbecue place that we loved. Canada has much to offer, if I can only get over their tipping culture (where there’s already a pretty high minimum wage), I’d happily move there!
        Where we are now has a few Asian takeouts, but that’s about it, choice is rather scarce on these islands (Shetland). Which forces us to cook and eat healthily. No big chain restaurants at all, not a single McDonald’s in sight would you believe it?!

        I do hope there isn’t going to be any more Trump incidents, but we all know that’s hoping in vain… Perhaps he’ll get used to it, like we have our noisy neighbours

  2. I’ve lived in the Seattle area nearly 30 years….just not that area so have missed ever doing that tour. It will go on my list for “when I get well enough”.

    1. You’ll have fun but there isn’t much left to see. The history was really great. Vic’s bro saw it in the late 90s so he had more to view. We loved our guide, she was informative and there’s some stuff I left out which I can’t remember. I need to start recording things because I can’t write fast enough.

      When you live in a place you don’t really experience it like tourist. We’ve never been to the Empire State building. We’ve only been to the Statue of Liberty on a class trip. We do that stuff when people visit. It’s stuff we’d like to do but it’s too crowded. I want to go to the observation deck at Freedom Tower but seeing the long line just turns me off. You’ll get well enough 🙂

      The behind the scenes tours in NY are fun. We realized these are geared towards history buffs and locals. We also started doing stuff at home because we want to see and learn about things while they are around. They are disappearing really fast these days.

    1. You just gave me a good laugh. Only learned from reading a bit of history and from the tour. For some reason always have to at least wiki a place before we go. Just like knowing a bit more, from past to present. Need to start recording the tours because I can’t write fast enough or remember everything.

      1. One of the reasons I started a blog was to help me remember what went on in trips. Still, I can’t remember it all.

  3. Loved this post, the Pioneer Square area is where I first lived when working with a company based in Seattle ~ and it is such a vibrant part of Seattle. The story of the underground and this piece of history is so fascinating, and you brought it all back with this rich post 🙂 Awesome. Wishing you all a great day!

  4. I’ve heard about this tour over the years, but had always heard there wasn’t much to see. Now you’ve made me wish I would have taken it all those years ago! It’s too bad the city won’t do anything to see that the city’s underground history gets preserved.

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