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History of the Underground City Seattle: the ruins under streets of the old center

The Seattle Underground is a network of underground passageways and basements in downtown Seattle, Washington, the United States that was ground level at the city’s origin in the mid-19th century. After the streets were elevated these spaces fell into disuse, but have become a tourist attraction in recent decades.

Seattle Underground hides the remnants of the old city. Under the streets of Pioneer Square neighborhood, there is an entire network of subterranean hallways, corridors, and basements, where the city of Seattle was born. And there, the ruins of shops, hotels, houses can be seen still standing. Over the recent decades, these spaces have become a popular attraction and a history museum of Seattle’s early days.

History of the Underground Seattle

In 1889, a fire raged through the fledgling city, razing much of the wood buildings in the business district. The blaze was widely attributed to a careless worker heating glue over a gas fire, catching the furnishings and floor on fire in a cabinetry shop. Founded in the logging industry, most of the original city was built of wood and little survived the flames that destroyed 31 blocks.

In the wake of the fire, new building ordinances required building from stone and brick; in the process of rebuilding, the decision was made to raise the city streets out of the swampy grounds. Retaining walls were added alongside the streets and filled to make new roads. Shops and businesses that had already rebuilt found the first and sometimes second stories of their buildings facing a concrete wall, the new street several feet above. Eventually, new sidewalks were added at street height, and the underground largely forgotten–left to opium addicts, prostitutes, and gangsters.

As the new street-level was slowly coming to its place, the landlords and the merchants knew that eventually, the ground floor would end up underground. After the new sidewalks were completed, many of them moved their business to the new ground floor. Still, some merchants who owned the buildings that survived the fire continued carrying on their business on the lower floors.

But, in 1907, when the fear of the bubonic plague was immense, the city condemned the underground floors. Many of the basements were evacuated and left to rot and deteriorate or were used just as a storage space. However, a small portion of the underground structure continued to function and was used as flophouses for the homeless, and some buildings were turned into speakeasies, opium dens, and gambling establishments.

In the 1950s, Seattle local Bill Speidel began a campaign to save the neglected Pioneer Square area, largely on the strength of the story of the underground city. He began giving guided tours in 1965, and his company continues these today. Since then, rival tours have cropped up, each offering a slightly different take on the underground.

The Speidel’s soon scheduled public tours: The Underground Tour finally was opened to the public. Soon after, the mayor was presented with 100,000 names on a petition, and in May 1970, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance naming 20 square blocks in Pioneer Square an Historic District. Later, Pioneer Square became the city’s first neighborhood to be so listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Stunning Photos of the Underground Seattle

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