The Seattle Underground. Home of prostitutes, speakeasies, opium dens, and rats. Infamous. Abandoned.
And yet—the story of the Underground is the story of progress.
The Seattle that existed from the early Denny pioneers to the loggers and dockworkers of the 1880s was a place of flooded streets and tidewater toilets. People drowned crossing the road. Sewage backed up into houses at high tide. The place was a mess.
Enter the Great Seattle Fire, June 6, 1889.
Twenty-five blocks burned to the ground. Buildings were destroyed, homes were incinerated. Seattle had to start over, but instead of rebuilding the same mistakes, Seattle built better.
The Great Seattle Fire made the city get serious. No more wooden buildings. No more flooding.
The first one was easy—only allow stone or brick in any new construction projects. The second was harder. To accomplish it, the city decided to downsize the cliff-like hill to the east and turn it into the still-steep slope we see today. They would dump the resulting fill into the soggy tidelands that had housed Seattle 1.0. That regrade would raise the city eight feet to thirty-five feet, depending on the specific locations. No more backed-up toilets. No more drownings in the waterlogged streets.
The only problem? Time. As with all major projects, it would take time to regrade the hill. So in the meantime, businesses built up again, right back on the soggy tidelands.
So instead of raising the entire city, all the city could do was raise the streets. They lined the current muddy streets with eight foot-high (or higher) walls and stuffed them full of landfill. The result looked something like an ice cube tray. The streets were a full story higher than they were before, but the buildings and the sidewalks were still built low, each stuck in its own ice-cube-like pit.
Things stayed like that for a while. You’d climb a ladder to go from building-to-street or street-to-building. A bit of an inconvenience, to put it mildly.
Eventually the city added new, street-level sidewalks, which effectively turned the buildings’ first floors into their ground floors, and their old ground floors into their basements. But the original, tidewater-level sidewalks stayed there, trapped in the bottom of their ice cube pits. The old sidewalks stayed illuminated, thanks to skylights in the new sidewalks built above them, so those spaces continued to be used for a time.
Until the rats came.
Rats and Opium
Rat infestations and bubonic plague (seriously—we’re talking the Black Death bubonic plague) shut down those underground sidewalks in 1907. The doors sealed and the places were forgotten. Many of the buildings’ ground-floors-turned-basements followed suit, and soon enough, an entire 25-block region was abandoned.
Officially, that is.
Crime moved into the vacancies. Opium dens, brothels, speakeasies, gambling halls. The Underground became Seattle’s red light district. An entire criminal world operating below street level.
In 1965, more than fifty years after it was shut down, Bill Speidel cleaned up a few parts of the Seattle Underground and got permission to show it to tour groups. Those tours have continued to this day, and it’s one of the only ways for locals and tourists alike to get a glimpse into Old Seattle.
The tour only shows a few pieces, though. Other parts of the 25-block Seattle Underground have been restored, too, but are used by businesses for storage or basements. Other parts are still abandoned. And others, presumably, still host drug dens and prostitution.