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Where History Goes Underground

There's something brewing in Seattle besides the coffee for which the city is so famous. Percolating beneath the streets of historic Pioneer Square (14 feet beneath it to be exact) you will find an elaborate history of plumbing catastrophes, hilarious misadventures, and local scandals. Bill Speidel's Underground Tour takes urban explorers beneath the streets of Seattle
toexplore an unexpected side of the city's history.

One to two storeys beneath the busy streets at the centre of this modern metropolis there exists a labyrinth of tunnels. Forgotten and in disuse since 1907, these underground passages actually connect up many of the city's heritage buildings. The Underground Tour takes visitors past turn-of-the-century storefronts, and through the front doors of businesses that welcomed scores of customers 100 years ago. But all of this happens at least a full storey under the city's present-day streets.

Beginning the tour aboveground in Doc Maynard's, a reconstructed 1890s pub, tour operators explain the comic side of Seattle's history up to the Great Fire of 1889. (Every city worth its salt needs a Great Fire after all!) With tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, guides describe where the perfect land to build a new city on Puget Sound was, and how the founding fathers missed it completely. In this way, Seattle came to be built on tidal flats which were regularly inundated with sea water. Building the city on these flats meant that the ground remained forever waterlogged and the streets were a menace. Horses would sink to their stomachs, and one unlucky schoolboy drowned crossing the street when he fell into a gargantuan pothole.

Severe drainage problems in this part of the city, as well as bad plumbing, meant that early Seattle residents had to contend with what tour guides call "exploding toilet syndrome." Because the city was built so low, the incoming tide would send water and sewage back through the pipes in a reverse flush. So, along with the morning flush came the threat of a deluge of sea water exploding out of the toilet onto hapless victims. And remember, Puget Sound can be pretty cold in January! Some industrious characters tried to solve the problem by building their toilets on raised platforms ten to fifteen feet high, but these contraptions required the use of a ladder just to get to the toilet. Something clearly needed to be done. In order to remedy the city's severe drainage problems, and the unpleasant threat of exploding toilets, streets were raised a full storey. Ground level was now to be high enough that both the streets and the sewage could drain properly.

Only the streets were raised initially, however, which meant that the sidewalks remained in their original location far below the new streets. Simply crossing the street meant that one had to climb up one ladder, walk to the other side, and then climb down another ladder to the level of local businesses. This could be dangerous, and several citizens died in accidents falling from the street to the sidewalk. Unfortunately, sidewalks were also below the horses that travelled on the streets above. So, having solved the problem of exploding toilets, Seattle residents now had to contend not just with ladders but also with horses walking around 10 feet above their heads. This wasn't a good combination, particularly on rainy days as you can imagine. Eventually the sidewalks were covered and enclosed. Lower-level tenants survived for a while with sidewalk stairway accesses, but eventually these were all sealed, and the underground labyrinth was forgotten and left to vagrants, bootleggers, and prostitutes.

In the mid-1960s, local resident, journalist, and amateur historian Bill Speidel began to write about the passages, which still remained under Seattle's historic Pioneer Square area. Concerned about destruction not only of the tunnels, but also of the historic square, Speidel began offering tours to the public in 1965. While about 25 square blocks of Pioneer Square has hollow sidewalks, only a small part was made accessible to the public through tours. The publicity that Speidel and others brought to the area resulted in its designation four years later as a national historic district.

The Underground Tour winds its way past a number of turn-of-the-century attractions that would have been part of every western town. Stepping out of one dark passage through the wall into an open space, we found ourselves in an old saloon. Turning another corner we entered a space once used as a local brothel. At census time, local prostitutes identified themselves as seamstresses, and not missing a lucrative opportunity, the city instituted a sewing machine tax. In another area, known as the vault, some visitors claim to sense a presence, or to see a ghost-like figure here beneath the streets. Witty guides related these and other stories as they led us through this unexpected side of Seattle's history. The slapstick routine employed by the guides keeps the mood light and still manages to convey the city's colourful history.

Since the tour weaves its way beneath the historic Pioneer Square district of Seattle, and because many of the underground spaces remain inaccessible, the tour continues above ground at times to connect to other passages. Be sure to wear good walking shoes, as you'll have to go up and down several sets of stairs to access the underground tunnels. Surfaces nderground are also uneven. And since parts of the tour operate above ground, it's important to dress for the weather. It might not rain underground, but it can get a bit wet aboveground between sections of the tour. Bill Speidel's Underground Tour of Seattle's past is a great way to explore history, which will appeal to everyone. The tour, however, might not last for long as local businesses are slowly reclaiming areas of the underground passages for their own uses. So, the next time you're in Seattle, enjoy those decadent coffees for which the city is so famous. Go for your double skim milk cappuccino with extra foam and just a dusting of cocoa, and be sure to check out Bill Speidel's Underground Tour.

If you go:
-90 minute tours begin at 608 1st Avenue in Pioneer Square and operate
year round, but the schedule varies month to month.
-Call ahead (206) 682-4646 for reservations and directions, and arrive
early to avoid crowds and sold-out tours.

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