Back in the ‘70s, I didn’t do the Paris sewer tour so I’ve kicked myself ever since. The description of the Seattle underground tour had the same quirkiness about it, and for that reason, we decided to do it. The destruction of the Seattle Hotel in the middle of the Pioneer Square District encouraged the late Bill Speidel to attempt to stop future development by showing the people of Seattle that the buildings of the area were more than buildings; they were treasure houses of stories. After all, a heritage building had been torn down to build a parking garage referred to contemptuously today as the "sinking ship garage" due to its shape.
Seattle was first settled in 1851 on a mud flat. As the town grew, the problem of sewage waste reared its smelly and ugly head. Waste from the homes on the hill above the settlement regularly washed down into it. With the invention of the flush toilet, the waste was concentrated in a wooden sewer, but at high tide, the flow to the flush toilets reversed…not pleasant then, but the stuff of many jokes on the tour.
Fortunately, much of the city burned on June 6, 1887. The town’s inhabitants were eager to rebuild and started doing so immediately, but the city had other ideas. After eight years of spewing toilets, it might be possible to solve the problem by raising the level of the city and running new sewer lines. The city built walls around city blocks so that the first floor of the rebuilt and surviving buildings was now the basement. For some time, to cross a street, it was necessary to leave the building, climb up a ladder to reach street level, walk across the street and descend another ladder to get to the main entrance of the building there. There were all kinds of accidents until new sidewalks were built over the old sunken sidewalks; they were supported by brick arches and a number still today feature a form of glass sky-lighting to illuminate the old walkways below.
There isn’t much to see on the tour as you visit the old walks around three different basement groups. The delight of the tour is the discussion of Seattle’s history. The guide staff seems to be made up of frustrated and in-between-jobs actors and they give a good , and comedic, performance. We learn that in this busy little town there were once 2000 seamstresses and very few sewing machines. A tax would be applied to them that would supply most of the early city’s tax income. A city built on the backs of the taxpayers? There were just so many stories.
The tour price was $14 adult (2007) and although our initial group seemed huge, it was broken down into four groups of 45 with separate guides. It was all well done, but there was limited visual impact.