By Elke Hautala
It’s just an ordinary Monday morning in Pioneer Square, light rain, a mist of clouds coming off the Sound. A Mass of pedestrians in dark overcoats, hooded sweatshirts hunched over move like schools of fish crossing streets at an ebb and flow.
Your footsteps echo slightly as you watch your steps on the sidewalk over concrete, street art and purple tinted glass. Hmm, purple tinted glass. You squint a little more closely to try to see beneath it like the New York subway grates of your childhood. You wonder – what’s underneath there?
Jerry Haener, Co-owner of the Beneath the Streets tour wants to help answer that question. With their hour long guided walking tour, they solve the mystery of Seattle’s underground spaces for locals and tourists alike.
“The sheer amount of the space and its more or less undisturbed condition” is what makes the Seattle underground unique Jerry tells me. He explains, “because of the historic lawlessness of the neighborhood they haven’t really been utilized to their full potential.”
“Seattle today you think of coffee and tech but back in the 1890s it was considered one of the most sinful cities in America.” Tour guide Dave Clavey tells me. It was pretty much the Wild West out here. When it came to making money there was an anything goes attitude that led to a fair amount of lawlessness and debauchery.
Case in point is the famous story of impresario John Considine who went on to strike it big on the Vaudeville circuit. He ran a live “box house” theater in the basement spaces with liquor, gambling and “gentlemen’s entertainment”.
He had a long-standing beef with a former employee called William Meredith who actually became the police chief. The tug of war between them went back and forth until Meredith came after Considine old west style with a gun in front of the local drugstore. Considine ends up shooting Meredith and a headline grabbing trial begins. In the end Considine is acquitted and the rest is history.
After remaining relatively unchanged for thousands of years under the settlement of the Coast Salish tribes, the area we now know as Pioneer Square became Seattle’s first business district. It all started in the 1850s with founding father Henry Yesler’s saw mill on the waterfront.
It had a definite heyday during the 1890s Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska outfitting those who wanted to try their luck at mining. This boom time brought us such Seattle luminaries as Nordstrom and Pantages.
How did all this lead to an underground city?
It’s a scenario that involves poor sanitation, rising tides, a famous 1889 fire in the business district and the necessity of keeping businesses open through rebuilding. Beneath the Streets will be happy to further elucidate the situation for you.
These spaces have long been a source of mystery and fascination in the city. They’ve also seen their share of crimes and eavesdropped on many secrets. From 19th Century brothels to teenage thrill seekers in the 1970s, speakeasies in the 1920s to the infamous murders in an underground gambling club in the 1980s.
Beneath the Streets covers around four square blocks and three different sections of these Seattle underground spaces. You get to hear revealing tales of early Seattle, ask questions and imagine the clandestine spots in their prime.
“To improve your future you have to learn from the past” Jerry said. He explained that preventing this history from disappearing was key. “Once you’ve destroyed it there’s no re-creating it.”
Jerry walks me to an opening in the bricks past Occidental Park with a wrought iron gate and concrete steps. I navigate the steps and peer in through another door as my eyes adjust to the change in light. Chipped sandstone walls, arches above and … wallpaper?
Jerry mentions that this used to be a beauty salon where it’s rumored they held drag shows for entertainment. It seems progressive causes, freedom of expression and the pursuit of a good time have been hallmarks of Seattle for years.
Many of these spaces are partially finished and Beneath the Streets has added a touch or two for illustrating the history. A scale possibly used to weigh produce (or gold for returning miners as I like to imagine), a large steamer trunk with a collection of dusty bottles (possibly used to distribute laudanum) and archival photos hung at occasional intervals.
After moving through several of the passageways, we wind our way back outside on a spiral staircase of faded black metal. We stop in an alleyway to look at a piece of street art that’s been pasted to a brick wall. It’s a winged figure carrying a banner – rising but torn at the edges. Not a bad metaphor for the neighborhood itself.
Full disclosure I worked in this neighborhood for a couple years as a tour guide myself. I called it my second home. It reminded me of New Orleans in a way with its history, grit, and echoes of the pioneering past. I even gave tours at night.
Sure there were unsavory elements in the alleyways at times but it also had an energy to it that was always exciting. It made me feel like a part of history. Perhaps that is what keeps so many people coming back to these spaces.
Now as I walk these same cobblestones I wonder about it’s future. The old House of Bargains antique store, a law office when I was there, is now a shiny co-working space. There’s a large modern glass building on the edge of Occidental Park. And further down tunnel boring machine Bertha has laid her claim to a new route beneath the streets.
For a glimpse at the opposite end of the spectrum, you can see what the new downtown tunnel will look like at the Milepost 31 Museum.
Perhaps the founding fathers had one more trick up their sleeves or the spirit of Chief Sealth is still making his presence known. After all this revolutionary behemoth, named for the first and only female mayor of Seattle, got stuck right when its work had just begun.
In many ways, the underground has always represented a deep urban need to continually drive forward the wheels of progress no matter what challenges stood in the way.
Back in the 1890s it was keeping business going even while they literally raised the street level through regrading and moving large amounts of earth.
Today, it’s been about creating a controversial new underground path to move the ever-growing group of denizens who call Seattle their home through downtown.
Our history is constantly being written and every once in awhile a glimpse into the past can help us stay grounded.
Plan your visit Beneath the Streets of Seattle by clicking here.
For more glimpses into Washington State’s past check out: historylink.org
Find out more about Bertha and tunnel boring here.