The Seattle Underground
Seattle, Washington, is known for being the home of two of the biggest tech companies in the United States- Microsoft, and Amazon.com.With all of its modern charm, few people would ever notice that there is an entire hidden underground city beneath the streets. This is known as the “Seattle Underground”, and it still contains shops and buildings that once served as the city’s businesses.
So…Why did the city of Seattle build the entire new town on top of the old one, and how did they do it? Find out about today’s Geographics. Seattle
Before we get into the story of the underground city, you need a bit of a backstory on how Seattle was founded in the first place. On November 13, 1851, The Denny Party docked their boat in an area of the Pacific Northwest called Alki Point.
These men had already been traveling along the Oregon Trail and felt that other towns like Portland were far too crowded for their taste. This original party consisted of three men; David Denny, John Low, and Lee Terry. When they first arrived, they were excited to find a plot of land where they could make a new home, so they came up with the bright idea to call it “New York-Alki”…Thankfully, they realized this was a silly name, and it was later called “Seattle”.At the time, this new plot of untouched land seemed exciting, and establishing a settlement on the waterfront sounded great.
David Denny wrote to his brother, Arthur, “We have examined the valley of the Duwamish and find it a fine country. There is plenty of room for one thousand settlers. Come at once.”He knew that he had found their new home.Athur Denny sailed a schooner named “The Exact” to meet up with the rest of the party, and he brought along 9 more adults and 12
On the first day of their arrival, the women and children had no idea that high and low tide was a thing. This may sound ridiculous to some people,
but for pioneers who lived in land-locked land their whole life, this truly was a new phenomenon. So they left all of their food and supplies
on the shore, only to come back later to see that everything had been swept away by the water at high tide.
The women were so distraught, all they could do was sit on logs and sob that they wanted to just go back to Portland. That first winter would be equally as miserable. But they stayed through the hard times, of
course, and Denny Party went down in history as the original founders of Seattle. Logging became the main industry, and they were soon able to attract more people to move to their town and open businesses. Obviously, the most plentiful material they could find were trees.
So they used wood to build absolutely everything, even down to the water pipes. There were just a couple of problems, though. All of these original founders were just ordinary people, and none of them had any actual engineering or town planning experience. Seattle, Washington is one of the rainiest places in the United States, and the city was built very close to the water at sea level.
Without any way to properly drain the water from the city streets, it flooded whenever it rained. This caused near-constant dampness in Seattle. There were near-constant mold growth and disease. To make matters worse, when the water level would rise at high tide, toilets would explode sewage whenever you tried to flush them. All of this leads to a city filled with generally miserable people. At this time, the citizens of Seattle had
no idea that just 38 years later, the entire city of Seattle would burn down like a pile of dry kindling.
On June 6, 1889, Seattle was experiencing an unusually dry summer. A man named Victor Clairmont owned the woodworking shop, and his young apprentice, John Backwas making a homemade pot of animal glue. John accidentally dropped this hot glue and started a grease fire.
He quickly grabbed a nearby bucket of water in an attempt to put out the flames, but no one told the poor apprentice that grease fires
need to be snuffed out. Throwing water on it only made it worse. The fire department did not arrive for 30minutes.
By then, the flames had spread to the nearbyDietz & Mayer Liquor Store, The Crystal PalaceSaloon, and The Opera House Saloon. In case you didn’t know, alcohol is highly flammable, and this gave fuel to the fire to continue moving throughout the town. If anything could go wrong, it did. The fire chief was out of town, so the only men left to fight the flames were volunteer firefighters who had no experience whatsoever.
Even the water pipes were made out of wood, so those were burning, too. The water pressure from the hydrants was not strong enough to put out the flames, and the hoses were not long enough to reach the water on the shoreline.They were caught off-guard and completely unprepared, and before they knew it, 33 blocks of Seattle were completely turned to ash.
It destroyed most of the businesses, and the public records, including the census. Plenty of people were able to evacuate in time, but there is no way of knowing exactly how many people perished in the Great SeattleFire without the census. Over 5,000 men lost their jobs, and thousands more now had nowhere to live.
The fire caused $8 million in damage to the city and an estimated $20 million in private business. Seattle Version 2.0The city council and more than 600 business owners did not waste any time getting to work. On the morning of June 7, 1889, they all met together to discuss how to rebuild their city. The one thing that everyone could agree on was that all of the new buildings must be built of brick or stone.
Everyone knew that there was a terrible issue
with flooding, and that there had never been
This way, if there was ever another fire, Seattle will not go up in a puff of smoke. The city had an unexpected chance at a fresh
start to fix all of the issues with its former infrastructure.
a proper drainage system installed by the
The council proposed that they would move
dirt towards the shoreline so that they could
raise the city higher above sea level.
The plan was to start with 10 feet of dirt
near the shore, and gradually get higher until
it reached 35 feet.
This way, the water would slope downward during
a rainstorm, and drain the city streets.
This design that actually made a lot of sense,
and one that everyone could agree on.
The only problem, of course, was that this
was back in the 1800’s, and they did not
have the benefits of heavy machinery that
we do today.
Construction was estimated to take 7 to 10
years, and charitable donations from around
the country were scarcely enough to replace
the $8 million loss.
This was going to be a very slow and arduous
The local business owners needed to get their
shops up and running immediately.
So, they immediately began building a second
city, knowing full-well that it would one
day be buried underneath the dirt of the new
They made the second city streets so narrow,
it was barely big enough to fit a horse-drawn
Even so, the business owners still painted
signs and tried to make due with what they
Just as these new businesses were opening,
the city council went ahead moving piles of
dirt onto public property 10 to 35 feet high.
For years, private property remained at sea
level, and the only way to get to a business
to get shopping done was to climb down a ladder.
If people needed to cross the street over
top of the gaps, they would lay a ladder down
and walk over it as if they were a circus
performer walking the tightrope.
All of this was done very carefully, but it
was common for people to accidentally drop
their parcels from the grocery store to the
streets down below.
Now, you may be thinking, wow- this sounds
Well, it was.
The Seattle city council they never bothered
to create roadblocks or hang signs warning
people that there was a sudden 10 to 35 foot
drop in the middle of the street.
So it was all too common for sleepy or drunk
Seattle residents to accidentally walk off
A total of 17 people died falling off the
curb, and the coroner’s office called it
As the years went on, portions of the city
were still underground, but they needed to
keep their businesses open.
Many of the entrepreneurs could not afford
to build a shop above-ground, and their only
option was to remain down below.
This is why the city council began creating
new sidewalks made of glass, called “pavement
These skylights allowed the sunlight to go
to the underground city.
When the glass was first installed, it was
But over the years, it took on a purple tint.
When the new city, Seattle 3.0 was finally
For those who could afford it, many business
owners abandoned everything in the underground
After all, you can’t exactly carry a heavy
cash register, sign, or vault up a rickety
One by one, people abandoned their storefronts,
and it became an underground ghost town.
Lou Graham and Her “Seamstresses”
Building the new city of Seattle 3.0 needed
a lot of manpower.
There was so much to do, the word spread that
there were plenty of job opportunities available
for men who were willing to haul some dirt.
Eventually, the city had ten men for every
one woman…You can see how this is a problem.
You’ve got a bunch of dudes, and not enough
women to go around as wives.
A woman named Lou Graham came up with a brilliant
solution to the problem, and that’s opening
a bigger and better brothel, of course!
She was the only business owner who could
afford to build a stone hotel that was larger
than the building she owned before the Great
Seattle Fire burned it down.
Graham wasn’t going to accept just any girl
as an employee, though.
She expected her ladies to read books, keep
up with current events, and speak multiple
They were also expected to play a musical
instrument, or sing.
Basically, she wanted these women to be on
level with the high-class courtesans of Europe.
If a woman showed up and she did not have
all of these qualities, they would take the
time to teach her.
Keep in mind that this was a time when many
of the people living in Seattle were illiterate,
so these ladies were highly educated, and
made a lot of money.
Lou Graham became the wealthiest person in
Even after paying her taxes, she volunteered
even more of her money to become the most
generous contributor to the public school
She continued to hold that record until the
1990’s, and was only surpassed by Bill Gates.
Tecnically, sex work was illegal, so Graham
made sure to have the ladies registered as
“seamstresses” on the books.
At one point, there were 2,500 women registered
as garment workers.
As long as the women were paying their taxes
to the city, the council chose to turn a blind
eye to the scandal.
They decided to tax anyone listed as a garment
worker $10 per month, and taxes began pouring
in from these ladies.
By the next year, sex work accounted for 87%
of the city’s operating budget.
So, without these ladies of the night, it
may have taken years longer for the city to
Lou Graham charged roughly the price of the
city’s upscale hotel.
The city officials were treated to free alcohol
whenever they came to visit, and probably
a little more on the side, if you know what
Graham was smart with her money, and diversified
her income it stocks and bonds.
She became so wealthy, than when business
owners struggled during an economic crisis,
or if they were desperate to move their store
out of the underground, they went to her for
loans, instead of the bank.
Luckily for them, she didn’t seem to have
the same vindictive nature of a mob boss when
it came to getting her loans back, and her
generosity only lead to more growth in the
Women had so much leverage in the affairs
of Seattle, that they were given the right
to vote in 1854.
This was incredibly progressive, and it happened
decades before other parts of the country.
The only problem was that this new flood of
female voters resulted in them kicking out
corrupt city leaders.
They wanted to do the right thing and clean
up the city’s morals…
This wouldn’t do, of course, and the city
council felt so threatened by the female vote
that they actually revoked women’s suffrage
and did not give them back their right to
vote again until it became a national law
In 1896, gold was discovered in Canada, and
it began a time known as the Klondike Gold
Over 70,000 hopeful prospectors were passing
through Seattle, and they rushed through the
town so quickly, they earned the nickname
These men needed to buy supplies from local
As you can imagine, there is this new influx
of men into the city, and they all just really
needed sewing done by some “seamstresses”.
Business owners marked up the normal cost
of their goods by 300%, and the miners didn’t
complain about the expensive prices.
They believed that they would be rich from
mining gold, and gladly handed over their
On a normal year, the city brought in $300,000
But during the Klondike Gold Rush, they brought
in a whopping $25 million…
In today’s money, that’s close to one
During the Great Seattle Fire, all of the
city’s rats had been killed.
So, this entire time, the citizens could enjoy
living without fear of catching a deadly disease.
Unfortunately, these years of relief did not
last long, and the vermin came back on boats
from ships that had sailed from San Francisco.
It became common to see rats running through
the dark streets of the Seattle Underground,
and no one realized that they were carrying
the Bubonic Plague until three people died.
Now, people were terrified to spend too much
time in the underground city, for fear of
catching the disease.
In 1907, the city set 15,475 rat traps, and
officially condemned The Seattle Underground
as dangerous and unsanitary.
They instructed citizens to remain above ground,
leaving the lower half to be forgotten forever…At
least, that’s what they thought.
After the scare over the plague, average law-abiding
citizen steered clear of the area.
Once it was emptied out, though, it became
the perfect hideaway for the city’s black
The Underground became the new home of speakeasies,
opium dens, and casinos.
On the upper level, Seattle appeared to be
one of the most wholesome cities in the United
There appeared to be no crime or homelessness
even throughout the Great Depression, because
many of the people began to move underground.
Most did not know that the darker side of
the town was hidden beneath their feet.
The Seattle Underground Today
We might have completely forgotten about the
Seattle Underground if it were not for the
curiosity and persistence of one man.
In 1954, a journalist for the Seattle Times
named Bill Speidel was interested in exploring
the Seattle Underground, but he was not even
sure how to access it, or if it still existed
after all of the years of abandonment.
If it truly did still exist, he could see
the potential for tourism, and pitched the
idea to his family and friends.
They totally supported the idea, and he ran
an article in the paper about how the city
“must do something” to preserve the history
of the Seattle Underground.
Just like that, he received over 300 letters
overnight from people who were willing to
give financial donations, and they were eager
to pay for a tour.
Spiedel said, “And they weren’t just 300
people who dashed off a letter and forgot
They were 300 people who tried to call me
He convinced those same 300 people to write
in to the city council, in order to convince
them to allow him to get into the hidden underground
Every time he found out new historical information
during his research, he would write another
article, and it would get world-wide attention.
Eventually, he was able to finally open the
On Day One, Bill Speidel charged $1 per ticket,
and 500 people showed up.
With modern-day inflation, that’s more like
$4,708, just one day’s work.
After researching as much as he could at the
city’s archives, Bill Speidel decided to
write books about the story of Seattle’s
He hired tour guides who treated the history
almost like it was a stand-cup comedy routine,
and would write family-friendly “dad jokes”
for his guides to say to the crowds.
This kept people laughing, and wanting to
come back for more.
And, of course, like any other creepy attraction,
there is also a ghost tour of the Seattle
Maybe the souls of the people who fell off
the edge still roam the narrow passageways
of the old city.
There are rumors of people seeing women wearing
Victorian dresses, as well as reports of ghostly
orbs floating around.
Okay…Maybe you don’t believe in that sort
of thing, but even for people who don’t
believe in the paranormal, they can’t help
but admit that it’s a bit creepy.
The Seattle Underground has been featured
in an episode of Scooby Doo, and an episode
of the 1970’s TV series called Kolchak:
The Night Stalker, where a serial killer used
the underground city to secretly hunt his
In 1966, the US government enacted the National
Historic Preservation Act, which put funding
towards preserving parts of the United States
that hold significant historic value.
After bringing attention to the space, Seattle
Underground’s Pioneer Square was added to
the National Register of Historic Places.
There were many portions of the underground
city that were forced to remain off-limits
to the general public, because they were considered
to be too dangerous.
Support beams are being added on a regular
basis, and brick arches were built in certain
parts of the underground.
These have successfully kept the city stable.
We can only hope that it will remain open
years to come.