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Dwelling the Depths Beneath Seattle’s Skid Row

Seattle’s original grunge movement had nothing to do with music. Instead, it was all about living in the dark depths below what the eyes can see.

In 1889, the Great Seattle Fire spread through most of Seattle, destroying the bulk of its business district. While the devastation was severe, rebuilding presented the city with a unique opportunity to improve upon itself. Being that the Pioneer Square area was built upon tidelands, it often flooded. So when it was rebuilt, city officials decided to build it on a more elevated level than its previous incarnation.

Unfortunately, restless business owners began rebuilding before the city had a chance to start their elevated renovations. And the owners were building at the old street level.

It was decided to build the city up without shutting down what lay below. This meant that some sidewalks and storefronts were as deep as 36 feet beneath a newer, higher version of the neighborhood upon completion. By building up brick and wooden walls to elevate the street level, Seattle had created a bona fide underground city. Visitors climbed ladders down to the lower level streets and stores, until a series of entrances was built to grant access to the subterranean section of town. The city eventually condemned the underground city on the grounds that it seemed like a breeding pit for any number of diseases, particularly bubonic plague, which had been sweeping the city. For decades, the underground has sat unused, just beneath the surface of the very much active Pioneer Square.

Starting in the 1960s, local entrepreneurs began running tours of the underground city, appropriately named the Underground Tour, which has become a popular tourist activity. Recently, tour organizers began offering the Underworld Tour, which is an adult geared version of the tour that speaks frankly about the tunnels’ use by drug and prostitution kingpins.

Penny Truitt, a tour guide of Seattle’s underbelly, showed us around when we visited the city.
One of the first things we asked Penny about was why it was necessary in the first place to elevate the city. She told us of the havoc the constant flooding wreaked on the area’s infrastructure – and particularly on its plumbing.

“Yeah, you could call it a big problem. Out toilets literally flushed in reverse during really high tides,” Penny informed us. “It turns out when you lay a sewer system you should have the exit point above the highest tide. I think the Romans had that down. Seattle, you know, we’re all about trial and error.”

Penny filled us in on the day-to-day routine of splitting time between the above and below ground variations of the city.

“The city figured the solution was just to put a ladder at the corners, and that’s how you would cross the street. Without dropping the kids, you packages. It was miserable,” Penny told us. “And for men in Seattle, you know, these were loggers, and they’re either chopping or partying.” We asked her what the results of having a heavily drinking portion of the population climbing up and down ladders all day was. “Seventeen guys didn’t make it,” she said. “Seventeen men fell from the street to the sidewalk. They say the cause of death was involuntary suicide.”

Penny also filled us in on some of the less legitimate activities that took place deep beneath town.

“Seattle is a wild west town,” Penny said with a hint of pride, “I mean, we’re on the coast, how much more frontier can you get? We call it ‘sewing.’ Seattle had a large quantity of sewing girls and sewing houses. We’ll just say that’s what the girls told the cops when they were arrested.”

How large was the problem? “At one point, about ten percent of the population claimed to be working as, ah, seamstresses,” Penny admitted. “Over 2,000 seamstresses, all but six living in the same three block area.”

It just goes to prove what we’ve always said here at Weird WA: When you’ve got a lot of gold and a lot of frontier people, you’ve got to get your britches stitched.

These days, the underground version of Pioneer Square still stands, although access is limited to the public. Rumors swirl that it has become a de facto home for Seattle’s homeless population, who use it for shelter, especially during bad weather.

Weird Washington

 

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