SEATTLE'S UNDERGROUND TOUR - PART 2
June 6, 1889, Seattle burned itself to the ground.
The fire burned for twelve hours, destroying the downtown. Damage was estimated at fifteen million dollars. Destroying forty-four blocks of cheaply done buildings and erasing thirty-five years of greed and planning mistakes, the fire was called a blessing in disguise. Perhaps two people died, and a million rats.
As the fire burned toward them. Sons of the Profits attempted to sell buildings. One businessman relocated three times during the .fire. June 6, 1889 was not a good day for the fire department. Their chief was in San Francisco and the water system failed. Firefighters attempted to create a fire block. Dynamiting buildings already on fire, they only spread it further and faster with each explosion.
The end of the fire seemed the end of everything, but something remarkable came out of it: a new Seattle with individuals joining forces as a community. Crisis forced them to plan a new city, together, in a big open-air meeting. (Of course, it was the only kind of meeting possible that day.)
The plan was to solve sewage and drainage problems with landfill, washing dirt from the steep hill down onto the tide flats. A gentle slope would make the sewer a one-way system. Then, a modern fireproof city would be built at a higher (and drier) level.
The plan was almost perfect. Only two things were wrong. First, it would take years to do, and second, it would cost a lot of money.
The problems made the Sons of the Profits uneasy. In order not to miss the post-fire boom, they decided to do it in reverse order.
Immediately, they returned to sites still smoldering. New buildings were designed with two front doors, at the first and second floors. Victorian ornamentation was saved for second floors. (Underground, you will see plain facades at the first floors.)
Money and people flowed into Seattle, and construction boomed. Most buildings in Pioneer Square were built in the first three years after the fire.
Finally the city government stopped shuffling papers and began moving dirt. When new buildings were in place, land had to be raised around buildings. The city raised streets by constructing a pair of retaining walls and filling in between, directing dirt and other materials in between trapezoid-shaped walls. Streets were raised from ground level eight to thirty-two feet, with new sewers and water mains laid into the fill.
(When we go underground, your feet will be at the original sidewalk level. You'll see photographs of pre-fire wooden buildings. Post-fire brick stores are on one hand, and opposite, a retaining wall extending the length of the corridor. Today's sidewalks are overhead.)
Now Seattle was getting sowewhere; up out of the mud. Modern buildings with first and second floor entrances, new streets raised eight to thirty-two feet, the future was in sight, and life went on. A Seattleite might enter a building at the first floor, leave by that door, and cross the sidewalk to the street, now an eight foot wall.
But, at every corner, a ladder stood against the retaining wall. The Seattleite would climb the ladder, cross the street, and descend a second ladder at the other side.
Seattle's population of pioneers accepted this. It was less easy for horses. It seemed impossible to convince a horse to climb a ladder. Worse, horses on street eight to thirty-two feet overhead made people more nervous than the pigeons we have on building ledges today. With high streets, drinking became hazardous. Seventeen people met death stepping from street to sidewalk.
At last the city constructed present-day sidewalks. Keystone arches and a framework of steel I-beams bridge the gap between the new streets and the second floors. Skylights were installed in the sidewalks to illuminate below. Stores open at both levels were needed to accomodate the post-fire boom, from 1889-1892. Then, in 1897, the excitement of the Klondike Gold Rush was unleashed and Seattle made $100 million outfitting (and entertaining) would-be gold miners. (The Underground Tour recommends a free visit to the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, two blocks south, on Main Street, between First Avenue and Occidental.)
In 1907, bubonic plague broke out in Seattle. An expert, Dr. Boms, was called in to fight the plague. He first condemned thirty downtown buildings, including the health department. Next, he set a ten-cent bounty on rat tails. Then concrete was poured on hardwood floors inside, and outside on boardwalks to control pests.
Afterwards, opium dens, gambling dens, and illegal lotteries operated underground, and speakeasies upstairs. The homeless would sneak underground for shelter. Anything portable and valuable was taken out of the Underground over the years. Others threw what was unwanted underground; movie crews left props.
Thanks to you, however, what was left of history is being preserved. We can still see structural aspects and try to imagine the people who created this. For your safety, please remember; no smoking, watch your step, keep little ones still, and try not to frighten the rats we see occassionally. Enjoy the underground!