Every city has a “past”.
Even an eclectic and worldly city like Seattle – the home of grunge and Dr. Frasier Crane; Microsoft and Starbucks Coffee – has a rough and colourful story. Scratch the surface of the modern architecture and you will find a wild pioneer history, traces of which survive beneath the modern city streets.
For, as it turns out, Seattle was originally ten feet lower than it is today.
We learned this, and much more, when we went on a “Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour” last month. We started our guided walk in a restored 1890’s saloon that once belonged to David Swinson “Doc” Maynard, one of the city’s more open-minded forefathers.
We then passed through Pioneer Square, where a bust of Chief Seattle stands as a reminder of the original peoples of Washington State, the First Nations of the Suquamish and Duwamish tribes.
Seattle can date it’s European settlement back to 1851-1852, when a number of competing interests, most notably the very pious pioneer brothers Arthur and David Denny, entrepreneurial mill owner Henry Yesler, and the generous and fun-loving doctor and water-front developer “Doc” Maynard, developed vast tracts of land.
The burgeoning town relied on the shipping and timber industries. Prostitution, liquor, and gambling in the freebooting and relatively lawless waterfront area ensured that workers had somewhere to spend their free time and money.
A key player in Seattle’s underground history is modern plumbing.
“The town’s proximity to sea level caused a new problem, literally, to rise up. In 1851, the same year the Denny party arrived, a fancy new device was introduced at the White House. It was called a “water closet,” and, boy, did these things take off in popularity. Even in the tiny frontier town of Seattle, indoor toilets became the rage.”
Locally known as “crappers”, after the British plumber Thomas Crapper, who modernised indoor plumbing and bathroom fittings, and was, by Royal Warrant, plumber to British kings, toilets were everywhere. Twice a day, with the incoming tides, crappers all over the young city would back up.
Not a pretty thought!
The Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, which started when a carpenter’s apprentice let his glue pot boil over, and which didn’t finish until more than 25 blocks of mostly wooden buildings had been razed, gave the city a new lease on life. The fire made international news, and relief money poured in, allowing the city to rebuild: in stone and brick, rather than wood, this time.
To deal with (or bypass) the problem of soggy lands and dodgy plumbing, the city built retaining walls, eight feet or higher, on either side of the old streets, filled the spaces between them, and paved over the fill, making the streets one story higher than the old sidewalks that still ran alongside them. Sensibly, people started conducting most of their business on the second floor of their buildings, and new sidewalks soon bridged the gaps between the elevated roads and the buildings, creating the tunnels that form part of today’s underground.
In the early 1900’s the tunnels were sealed off (for fears of plague) and virtually forgotten, until they were rediscovered and reopened in the 1950’s and turned into a popular tourist attraction.
It’s amazing what you find when you look under the façade of a modern city.