Go-Underground to glimpse Seattle's unusual past

SEATTLE -- Things might drop on you. Rats and cockroaches abound. And, well, it smells bad.

Other than that, the underground tour of Seattle is an entertaining and adventurous way to learn about the city’s checkered past. What a contrast to today’s spectacular city.

(To be honest, while our tour guide warned us of falling objects, rats and cockroaches, we never encountered any on a recent tour.
(The smells, however, are a fact.)

The underground tour, a 90-minute, tongue-in-cheek look at the odd history of Seattle’s construction, begins at Pioneer Square, where 19th-century buildings stand on the original site of the city, dating from the 1860s.

Before then, this area was not land, but water. A few hundred feet from present-day Pioneer Square was a small island first called Denny, then Duwamps Island (after the Duwamish Indians).

With their eye on possible profits to be made from logging, settlers filled in the bay, known as Duwamish Bay, turning the island into a peninsula, and changed the name again to the more appealing Seattle.

The city rapidly grew, much of it on stilts because of continual flooding.

In the filled-in dirt streets, the earth frequently gave way under the weight of heavy wagons. Huge potholes opened up and usually filled with water. In the late 1800s, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported on a 10-year-old boy who drowned while attempting to raft across a 12-foot-square pothole, 8 feet deep, at one busy intersection.

Dispensing quirky tidbits like that one, the underground tour guides outline other significant events in Seattle’s history, including the fire in 1889 that burned the entire city to the ground in 12 hours and the decision to rebuild the city 8 to 32 feet higher to avoid flooding and sewage problems (more on that later).

According to local lore, the city fathers decided that it would take too long to fill the land properly. So buildings came first -- huge brick and stone structures and only after the city was rebuilt did the fill project begin.

The result was that the first stories of all the buildings were buried. On the underground tour, visitors are taken through passageways at the city’s original level where the original entrances to still-existing buildings can be viewed.

Raising the city improved its citizens, lives in two distinct ways -- the city stopped flooding, and a major sewage problem was corrected.

According to our guide, Seattle had a rather unsettling plumbing problem: Twice each day, when the tide came in, the toilets overflowed.

Early residents dealt with this problem by the simple expedient of building their bathrooms on an upper floor to avoid the overflow; most residents became used to climbing stairs to the elevated “throne room."

Seattle hasn’t done much with its underground other than to let it slowly molder away. A few relics are still stashed in underground sites, but most are stored in modern archives or museums. What’s on view in the underground tour is mainly the decrepit ruins of the original Seattle.

You can’t go there by yourself, by the way. The underground areas were condemned as unsafe years ago and all entrances are kept locked except to the tour operators.

Above ground, Seattle today is a beautiful city, often likened to San Francisco -- the only cleaner, with more water views and without the need to dodge cable cars at every corner.

It’s the home of the famed Space Needle, a couple of professional sports teams and the perfect cafe latte. But many visitors to the area discover the dressed-down sophistication of Seattle to be at its.most charming in Pioneer Square.

Besides the underground tour, there are lots of other ways to enjoy Seattle. Among them:

Take a harbor cruise. Gourmet dinner cruises offer a view of Seattle’s spectacular nighttime skyline; there are other meal cruises any time of day (at prices ranging from $22 to $45, senior discounts available).

On other cruises, from two hours to all day, visitors can go whale watching, tour the locks, view the San Juan Islands or see the towns of Victoria and Vancouver on the Canadian side of the border.

Go fishing. Salmon fishing is topping up here, and there are a number of sports fishing businesses that will do everything from baiting your line to-filleting the catch.

-- Take a tour. Gray Line-of. Seattle offers a dozen tours, ranging from excursions to Victoria (from $75 per person) to a six-hour city highlights tour ($18,.50 for
seniors). Call (800) 426-7532.

To learn more about the underground tour or to make a reservation, call (206) 682-4646.

(Julie Howard is a free-lance writer based in Sacramento, Calif.)

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