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).
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 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.
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.
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.