Sunday, June 24, 2012

Seattle - Underground Walking Tour

If you walk around Seattle in a north-east trajectory away from the water, you quickly notice how steep and hilly the streets are.  There were some inclines where I actually wished for a rope tow to haul me up like on the old ski hills.  The magnitude of the slope really hit home when we entered the Seattle public library on Spring St and 4th Avenue from the ground floor elevator, but exited back onto street level onto 5th Avenue on the other side of the building from the 3rd floor.  We were told on our walking tour that the top floor of the Seattle library is a great and free way to get a nice view of Seattle, without the cost or lineups of going up the Space Needle.

We learned quite a bit about the history of Seattle through the hilarious and quirky Bill Speidel Underground Walking Tour, first started in 1965 as a way to protect the heritage buildings in the Pioneer Square area.  Back in the 1800s when Seattle was first settled, it was much lower in elevation relative to the water table.  This had the unfortunate effect of causing the sewers to back up every time the tide came in.  The guide describes with great glee how geysers of raw sewage up to 10 ft high could shoot up from the toilets (originally called crappers after inventor Thomas Crapper).  Residents were known to time their trips to the bathroom based on daily tide schedules published by the newspapers.

Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, in 1889 a small grease fire caused by spilt glue grew a great fire that wiped out the entire town.  It did not help that the fire started in a carpentry shop full of sawdust, rags and turpentine, that most of the town was made of wood, that nearby stores contained dynamite and loose ammunition, and the fire chief was out of town, leaving inexperienced volunteers to try to fight the fire.  Being low tide, there was insufficient water so the firefighters tried to contain the fire by blowing up buildings.  Not knowing how to do this properly, they just caused the fire to spread more.

On the bright side, this gave Seattle the opportunity to rebuild and regrade their town on higher ground.  Eight foot tall retaining walls were built above the old town using the rubble of the fire as land fill.  This resulted in the series of tunnels and walkways representing the original town that are now part of the Underground Walking Tour.

We were led down flights of stairs scattered across the current Pioneer Square area that revealed a subterranean underworld chock full of remnants from the past.   Seattle was rebuilt one street at a time with the roads being constructed first, then the sidewalks.  People were required to climb ladders to traverse from pre-regraded to post-regraded streets.  The situation was precarious as horse and carriages or drunken men would occasionally slip and fall off the edge, plummeting down 8 feet.  This was described as the "One Step Program" for alcoholics and 17 deaths that occurred were labelled "accidental suicides".  Passersby below had to be wary of horse droppings falling down on them from above.

 We were shown examples of original shops where you can still see signage, door frames and windows. Storekeepers did not want to wait for their street to be rebuilt before reconstructing their businesses, so they were told to recreate their buildings with two entrances, one on the ground floor and one on the second floor which would eventually become the new ground floor.   Historic photographs showed evidence of these dual entrances.  We saw the remnants of a raised crapper (which brought memories for me of a scene from Slum Dog Millionaire), a sign for steam baths and one representing Seattle's Original Water System.

After the higher grade Seattle was completed, the underground tunnels continued to be used for various purposes including cold storage and even to hide a bank vault.  In order to be able to see, a series of glass covered sky lights were built in the ceilings of the underground.  They can still be found today at street level and are often purple in colour.  From the tunnels, you can actually see the shadows of pedestrians walking over the skylights.  The guide turned off the electrical lights that were added later, in order to show how effective the skylights still were during the daytime.

During prohibition, the tunnels were used to transport illegal alcohol smuggled in from Canada.  People started dumping their garbage down there and for while, the tunnels were closed due to bubonic plague and rat infestation (our tour group squirmed uncomfortably during this part).  To ease the rat situation, the city offered to pay 10 cents for every rat tail captured.  This plan backfired as youths started raising rats in order to turn them in for the reward.

As usual, the tour ended in a gift shop which had the pleasant surprise of also being a comprehensive museum of photos and memorabilia of the time.  There were photos, short biographies and other information about the main players who first settled and developed Seattle in the 1800s - Arthur Denny, Dr David Maynard and Henry Yesler, whose names now grace major streets in the city.  Photos show the devastation of the fire and the fascinating regrading effort that created the underground tunnels.

There was an archival photo and many souvenirs of Madame Lou Graham, who ran Seattle's most profitable brothel, although she called her girls "seamstresses" and so they became her "sewing circle".  The tour guide sardonically talked about how Seattle in the 1880s became the early "fashion capital" with 2500 seamstresses registered within a 3 block area.  The town levied a $10/month sewing machine tax but the tax collector could not find a single machine.  Upon her death, Lou Graham donated a quarter of a million dollars to the school system.


Quite the tribute was given to the original crapper as replicas can be found in the museum, as well as in each stall of the Ladies' washrooms, or "Temple of Convenience" as sign reads.  The stall doors have whimsical names such as "Edith Head", "Lovely Lou", "Royal Flush" and "Old Faithful".  The Men's washrooms are called "Gentlemen's Privy Chamber" and while they do not have the ornate toilets, their stall doors read "P.Shy" and "Oval Office".

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