About Seattle Underground Streets
The Seattle underground streets are an amazing set of subterranean sidewalks and passageways that were once the main centre of Seattle. The result of a quite astonishing example of determined urban-planning, the Seattle underground streets provide an amazing glimpse into the city’s past.
History of Seattle’s subterranean streets
The story behind the Seattle underground streets revolves around a fire in 1889 which devastated the city. When it came to rebuilding, the town-planners decided to take this opportunity to raise the street level of the entire area, to avoid the perennial problem of flooding. As the new street level was established at generally 12 feet higher than the original level, pedestrians used to have to climb ladders to go between street level and building entrances.
As merchants moved to the ‘new ground’ floor, they ensured these were covered in elaborate decoration as they knew people would increasingly be using this rather than the old ground floor. In 1907, the old ground floor – now underground – was condemned out of fear of bubonic plague. Many of the buildings left underground were abandoned, but some became the site of the bleaker aspects of urban life: prostitution, speakeasies, opium dens and shelters for the homeless. It’s thought that at its peak, around 2000 people lived underground.
In the 1950s, a local resident, Bill Speidel, started a campaign to restore some of the Pioneer Square area, citing the story of the underground city. In 1965, after a partial refurbishment, he began to offer tours of the some of the area to anyone interested, allowing people to visit a lesser-known side of the city complete with former shops, houses and whole streets.
Seattle’s underground today
Seattle’s underground streets are accessible via guided tour today: the guides are full of stories about the wild, weird and shady past of Seattle’s underground and it’s well worth going on one for a glimpse into the past. Note that it’s really not possible to explore on your own. Only a limited amount of the underground has been restored into a safe enough situation for visitors to be permitted.
The original Bill Speidel tour departs from Doc Maynard’s Public House in Pioneer Place Park.
Getting to Seattle’s underground streets
Tours depart from Pioneer Place Park in central Seattle: there’s a light rail station in the square, which is nestled between Cherry and James Street. If you’re coming from the I-5, take exit 164/165A onto James St. There’s parking in central Seattle, although public transport can be easier.
Buses stop on Yesler Way and 3rd Avenue. King Street station is a 5 minute walk away, with intercity and local connections.