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The Underground City of Seattle

Updated on March 21, 2011

Probably not too many people know that there is a city under Seattle, in the state of Washington. I didn't know it, until I lived there. I worked in Renton, for a company called Renton Coil Spring Company, way back in the 70's. Renton Coil Spring may sound like an unassuming company, but they made highly technical springs for Boeing which they used in their aircraft and other products. The springs underwent rigorous testing and specifications. The company now boasts of the fact that the rover left on the moon has products made by that company.

Getting back to the underground city: While I lived in Renton, I had the opportunity to see "The Underground City of Seattle" and was able to know for myself that it, indeed, exists. Nobody lives there, though. Actually, it is a glimpse of Seattle's first-floor buildings from the 1990's.

Before the 1990's, Most of the buildings were built with the soft, coniferous wood found in the area. In June of 1889, John E. Back, a worker in Victor Clairmont's cabinet-making shop, was heating a pot of glue over a gas fire. It boiled over and caught fire. The fire soon spread to the wood chips and turpentine on the floor. Back tried to douse the fire with water, but that only caused the fire to spread. Fire easily engulfed other buildings made of the soft wood. So massive was the fire that many fire hydrants had to be used, which caused a significant loss in water pressure. This allowed to the fire to spread further until the entire business district of Seattle was consumed.  The area, now known as Pioneer Square, was quickly rebuilt, but with brick and stones to avoid further disastrous fires.

But other problems arose, or perhaps better said, persisted: Seattle - as we know it today - was originally built on the shore of Puget Sound, and its elevation was at sea level. This meant that when it rained, the water didn't run off very well, and the streets were muddy enough to - as stated by one questionable source - "swallow dogs and children" Also, when a large wave came in, it backed up the sewer, and people that were sitting on the john (which was a new invention those days), got the surprise of a free washing. So - after the fire gave them an excuse to rebuild - toilets were raised to the second floor, and new roads were built one story off the ground so that the carriages could roll on dry pavement. The next problem that supposedly arose, was that occasionally a creative horse let its dung spill over the edge of the road's side railing, and pedestrians below got another type of surprise. (I use the terms "questionable source" and "supposedly" because of a certain rumor I later learned about this underground tour: It is known to be built on a tongue-in-cheek attitude that puts a suspicious light on the colorful stories told therein.)

So - eventually - the bottom level of all buildings were closed off, and the divisions between the roads and the buildings became underground tunnels. The second story of the buildings became the first floor. For a while, vagrants and questionable "entertainers" occupied these dark "basements" and the underground areas earned a sinister reputation for a while, until laws were instituted and passed that allowed special treatment to places that qualified for historic status. Pioneer Square won that distinction, and business-minded people took advantage, and created this unique attraction for the city of Seattle.

The tour guide stressed how important it was that everyone who entered this underground city should leave at the end of the tour, that each tourist should be sure that all who came with them, left with them. Then he told the story of a time when - after they locked the doors to the underground city after a tour - they discovered they'd left a woman behind. When they finally found the lost soul, they saw that the woman had significantly and permanently changed her personality for the worse. Whether this story (about the woman) is true or not is a question settled by the reader.

It is true, though, that the underground areas exist, as I've seen it. It is rather spooky, made so by the rotting and useless icons of an era gone by, sitting in silent rejection within a dimly-lit and musty gray tomb where nobody ever bothered to clean or dust. The illustration at the top of this article is a conglomerate of different places in the underground city, with additional touches based on what I saw and felt.


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    • applejuic3 profile image


      7 years ago from San Diego, CA

      i really wanted to go on this tour when i went to seattle but didn't get a chance too. i will definitely be taking advantage of it next time i go though.

      thank you.

    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 

      7 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      I have been there once about 20 years ago, kinda spooky, but great history.

    • mquee profile image


      7 years ago from Columbia, SC

      This is a really interesting bit of history. I had no inkling that such a place existed. A nice learning experience.

    • Cindy2011 profile image


      7 years ago from Canada's West Coast

      My husband is standing over my shoulder reading your article with me. He says he had heard about the underground city. You have ignited a fire of curiosity in us, we might need to make a trip down to Seattle. We're historical railway buffs, but this comes close as a second interest. Thanks for writing about it.


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