Seattle Underground

The Mines

The Seattle Underground is a network of underground passageways and basements in Pioneer Square. They were located at ground level when the city was built in the mid-19th century, but fell into disuse after the streets were elevated. In recent decades they have become a tourist attraction, with guided tours taking place around the area.

Like most major metropolitan areas, Seattle is built on the ruins of what came before. Beneath it's street lie the ruins of the underground. Anything that wasn't raised to the new level you can find down here. You can still follow the cracked, paved streets and many of its crumbling store fronts are still recognizable. It's the most comfortable subterranian dwelling a Nosferatu could ask for.

There are two major sections of the Underground, one is the undercity which is the main Hub found directly underneath Pioneer Square. It is extremely similar to a functioning underground city run by the Nosferatu, their ghouls ans their herd. Functional buildings from houses to storefronts are found here. A strange dark mockery of the city above which sits well with the Nosferatu.

The other part is known as the mines. These are the various tunnels that spoke outward from the undercity. They range from large sewer tunnels, forgotten Transportation tunnels, or less used sections of the Seattle Underground. These mines are multi-tiered and some tunnels created by the Nosferatu can go deep indeed. The deeper you go, the more dangerous it becomes. Some say there are tunnels so deep that even the Nosferatu have no idea where they go.

After the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, new construction was required to be of masonry, and the town's streets were regraded one to two stories higher. Pioneer Square had originally been built mostly on filled-in tidelands and often flooded. The new street level also kept sewers draining into Elliott Bay from backing up at high tide.

in 1907, when the fear of the bubonic plague was immense, the city condemned the underground floors. Many of the basements were evacuated and left to rot and deteriorate, or where used just as a storage space. However, a small portion of the underground structure continued to function and was used as flophouses for the homeless, and some buildings were turned into speakeasies, opium dens, and gambling establishments.

The subterranean literally became ”the underground” of the city, a place of junkies, gambling addicts and all kinds of illegal activities. And it remained in this state, abandoned from the “outside world”.

In the wake of the fire, new building ordinances required building from stone and brick; in the process of rebuilding, the decision was made to raise the city streets out of the swampy grounds. Retaining walls were added alongside the streets and filled to make new roads. Shops and businesses that had already rebuilt found the first and sometimes second stories of their buildings facing a concrete wall, the new street several feet above. Eventually, new sidewalks were added at street height, and the underground largely forgotten–left to opium addicts, prostitutes, and gangsters.

Like any adept storyteller, he spiced up his narrative with tales of drunk lumbermen and “houses of negotiated affection” where “seamstresses” raked in insane levels of income.

MOHAI executive director Leonard Garfield points out that the neighborhood was home to Seattle’s first Chinatown, as well as an array of garment workshops that established the city as a maker of sturdy outdoor wear. In other words, some of those hardworking seamstresses were actually just seamstresses.

Underground stores are reminders that some building owners opted to keep their original entrances.

The streets were graded using dirt from the surrounding hills, elevating the neighborhood as high as 35 feet. For a time, while the downtown sidewalks and shop windows were at the new street level, there were shop entrances at original ground level. That meant using lots of ladders until new sidewalks were built. According to the tour, 17 men fell to their deaths in that period.

Some businesses operated at both levels. Others, such as steam baths and "other enterprises" operated on the lower level. Seattle — being a Wild West town full of fishermen and loggers — had quite the gender disparity. A census during that period fixed the population count at 23,000 people, most of them male. However, there were 2,300 women who noted their profession as "seamstress," with all but six of them living in the same, three-block area. Lots of torn dungarees, perhaps. However, a subsequent city investigation didn't find too many sewing machines.

Bertha's Bane

Built on Sawdust

On June 6,1889 a fire gutted the city. It destroyed 66 blocks. Fatalities included an estimated million rats but no humans. In the wake of the fire, the city banned wooden buildings downtown and voted to widen, regrade and redesign streets in the burned area. Meanwhile, business owners promptly began putting up brick and masonry buildings on the sites of their old businesses. The street grading filled in the ravines, beveled off the tops of the bluffs and built up the bases. As Speidel puts it, the result is that the old core of the city is like a waffle, with raised streets and holes where the buildings are located. Former sidewalks are anywhere from one to ten meters below current street grade, and present entrances to buildings are often on the former second or even third floors. Some building owners planned for the eventual new entrance level; others didn't.

One touch of class was that the great Johnstown flood had happened just a short time earlier and Seattle had pledged aid to Johnstown. After the fire, the city sent the money anyway. In return, aid flowed into Seattle from people impressed with the city's commitment.

The map below shows the fire area in purple and former water in light blue. Dock areas are only approximate. Present streets are shown. The grid of streets existed at the time of the fire, but the southern extension of 2nd Avenue south of Yesler Way did not. If you count the blocks there are a lot less than 66 because many present blocks were bisected by alleys in 1889.

While the grading went on, so did life. Business owners constructed temporary stairs down to the old ground level, and it was not uncommon for people and cargo to fall into the gap between the buildings and the raised streets. Eventually the present sidewalks were laid and the former ground floors of buildings became basements. It took years to complete the street grading, so business owners can hardly be blamed for not waiting.

IN 1889, A FIRE RAGED through the fledgling city, razing much of the wood buildings in the business district. The blaze was widely attributed to a careless worker heating glue over a gas fire, catching the furnishings and floor on fire in a cabinetry shop. Founded on the logging industry, most of the original city was built of wood and little survived the flames that destroyed 31 blocks.

In the wake of the fire, new building ordinances required building from stone and brick; in the process of rebuilding, the decision was made to raise the city streets out of the swampy grounds. Retaining walls were added alongside the streets and filled to make new roads. Shops and businesses that had already rebuilt found the first and sometimes second stories of their buildings facing a concrete wall, the new street several feet above. Eventually, new sidewalks were added at street height, and the underground largely forgotten–left to opium addicts, prostitutes, and gangsters.

In the 1950s, Seattle local Bill Speidel began a campaign to save the neglected Pioneer Square area, largely on the strength of the story of the underground city. He began giving guided tours in 1965, and his company continues these today. Since then, rival tours have cropped up, each offering a slightly different take on the underground.

Visitors can join a guided walking tour beneath Seattle’s sidewalks and streets, exploring the subterranean passages that once were the main roadways and first-floor storefronts of old downtown Seattle. The guides relay stories of the city’s colorful and sordid past. The tours walk through three blocks of the underground, including an old saloon, shopfronts, and a hotel.

Early Sewers

As Seattle's population grew in the 1880s and 1890s, the city began developing a sewer system. For several decades residents had relied on a rudimentary system of wooden-box sewers and cesspools, but these posed health hazards to the people living and working around them. Many of them utilized open ditches or contaminated nearby water sources, such as springs or lakes.

A large diphtheria epidemic in the mid-1870s killed numerous children and brought attention to the problem, but it was not until 1885 that the city council required that all residential properties connect to sewer lines. Most of the lines discharged untreated sewage into Elliott Bay, Lake Washington, and Lake Union. In the bay, tides, currents, and the large volume of water in Puget Sound carried sewage away and diluted it. Lake Union and Lake Washington did not have strong currents, however, and the sewage contaminated their waters.

According to historian Matthew Klingle, the 1889 fire that leveled a large part of the city provided an opportunity to rework the existing sewer system and improve it. City officials considered an 1889 plan developed by George E. Waring Jr. (1833-1898), an expert on sewer systems. The plan itself is not in city records, but other documents refer to Waring's plan and criticize his contention that the city only needed to build a sewer system for wastewater. According to an article about the Memphis sewer system that Waring co-wrote in 1881, he believed that stormwater could be handled on the surface and did not need to be routed into pipes. Benezette Williams, another civil engineer who would do extensive work on Seattle's water and sewer systems, described Waring's 1889 plan in his own sewer-system plan. According to Williams, Waring had concerns that sewer gases would build up in the sewer system during the summer and fall dry season, so that stormwater should be excluded entirely and water for flushing the system regularly should be stored in tanks to be released as needed.

Waring's plan was not adopted. It is likely that city officials realized his recommendation for a sewage-only system would require the additional construction of a stormwater system. Williams stated, in his discussion of Waring's plan, that Seattle's rain falls primarily in six months and during that time the ground is regularly saturated with water and so runoff would have to be managed. Allowing it to run downhill in gutters, as Waring recommended, would result in puddles and the erosion of street surfaces due to the volume of water that would be moving across the ground.

The city then hired Benezette Williams to design a sewer system. He quickly dispensed with Waring's ideas:

"In short, the accumulated experience of all populous cities and towns leaves no chance for being mistaken in the assertion that the underground removal of storm water is a necessity in a modern city. Any attempt to dispense with it is a retrograde movement, and one not to be tolerated at the present day" (Williams, 4).

Williams submitted his sewer-system plan to the city in 1891. It relied on a single system of pipes to take both sewage and stormwater to outfalls in local waterways. These pipes would carry sewage from buildings and stormwater from storm drains and gutters connected to underground drainage pipes.

The city council adopted the plan on November 30, 1891, but it was not immediately implemented. When City Engineer R. H. Thomson did construct the system, he used elements of both plans. Following Williams's plan, the city built two sewer trunk lines that began carrying wastewater in 1894. One, on the north side of downtown, carried sewage to Elliott Bay, at the base of Denny Hill (before it was regraded). The other, on the south end of downtown, discharged onto the tide flats south of King Street until they were filled and the outfall pipe was extended to the Duwamish River in 1910. Thomson did not direct any of the sewage to Lake Washington, as Williams had recommended, considering it too close to town.

Dealing with Overflows

Tides and currents carried the sewage away from the city and, although water-treatment facilities would not be developed until the 1920s, the city saw a marked decrease in illnesses and deaths attributed to polluted water. Unfortunately, the system was not designed to handle the volumes of wastewater and drainage that would flow into it during heavy storms once the city was fully developed. It relied on overflow outlets along the lakes, the Duwamish River, and Puget Sound that released untreated sewage along with stormwater when the water volume overwhelmed the system.

Treatment plants, built beginning in the 1920s, eased the pollution of waterways, but storm-related overflows continued to release millions of gallons of untreated wastewater into waterways each year. In the 1960s and 1970s the city worked to separate sewer and storm-drainage lines in the parts of the city that had been developed before the 1950s with combined sewer systems.

In the 1980s, the city began to address pollution caused by combined sewer overflows (releases of untreated wastewater during storms) and untreated drainage water that did not go to water treatment plants. Since 2001, the city has been making changes to limit combined sewer overflows, the ones that come from parts of the city that still carry sewage and stormwater in the same pipes, to one overflow per outfall per year, by building inline storage tanks that hold excess water until the treatment plants can handle the volume.

The great Seattle fire of 1889 burned more than 100 acres of downtown, a failure of the city's patchwork of private water systems. One month later, the citizens of Seattle overwhelmingly voted for a publicly owned system. Then, the Alaska gold rush of 1897 brought money into the city so that it could afford to build it. Our visionary leaders made the following decisions so we could have some of the best water in the country today:

Chose a high-altitude source, which means gravity, instead of an expensive pumping system, brings us water.
Chose water that comes from a protected wilderness, which means it has fewer contaminants and we can treat our water with fewer chemicals.
Our region benefits from these decisions made a century ago, with clean, abundant water. Seattle Public Utilities is committed to continuing this legacy.

While the underground portions of the city are now tourist attractions, it originally served as a great location for both installing outhouses and the distance from Elliot Bay for hauling in water for flushing and cooking purposes.

Before the turn of the century, Thomas Crapper brought an outhouse replacement to Seattle - the Crapper. Unfortunately, it needed to be connected to a centralized sewage system. Originally they pumped water into the bay, but as you'd imagine, life that close to the water led to serious problems in the early residences of the town. Flooding and exploding toilets were common due to incoming tides, leading to increased interest in plumbing improvements in the city.

After a major fire that nearly destroyed the city in 1889, buildings were rebuilt with 8-foot high walls on either side of the sidewalks and began to fill them in in order to raise up the street level to deal with the water problems. This created the underground tunnels in the city, making it very easy to install plumbing systems in older buildings without the need for extensive excavation or retrofitting.

Another benefit of the fire led to a realization that Seattle needed a proper water supply system, leading to water mains bringing water from high-altitude sources surrounding the area. Some of these large cedar water mains are still in use today.

97% of Seattle residents had flushing toilets by the 1940s and upper-class homes began installing second or additional half-baths in order to accommodate larger families and more luxurious lifestyles.

Weedin Place fallout shelter

The biggest change in the city proper in the SW quadrant
has been the sudden proliferation of transit: light rail,
elevated rail, automated buses, trolleys, ferries, automobiles
have been put into service throughout the area, possibly over-
serving the need there. The reasons for this are unclear, but
rumors persist: tunneling under the city while cordoning
off the streets for pedestrian and transit use only, creating a
walkable neighborhood where travel is restricted to public-use
vehicles only. The systems are highly automated, making some
question how this can possibly save money or improve safety
in the area, but the authorities claim to have nothing to say
on the matter.

With talk of a tunnel has come talk of why that tunnel
wouldn’t work, and among the more conspiratorial, talk of
obstacles below the surface that would obstruct the tunnel.
In particular, reports have surfaced of a structure deep below
the city streets that’s still sealed off, left from a mansion
that’s long since been torn down, filled in, and paved over.
Or else it’s an old bank vault from a building that burned
down in the fire and got sealed over. Whatever it was, it’s
been a while since this local legend resurfaced, but all the
locals seem to know it — except there’s a group of stigmatics
who claim that the legend never existed before last year, and
that the vault is new, if it exists at all. An Inquisitor who
called himself Paracelsus claimed a few months ago that the
changes in the 1889 splinter were ultimately not a concern,
as whatever cataclysm might have arisen from it has already
been trapped in a bunker under Pioneer Square. Nobody paid
much attention, but he’s vanished in the past month, leaving
scholars to wonder whether he might have been correct.

While it could be a piece of Infrastructure, the possibility
remains that it’s not — or that it doesn’t belong to the God-
Machine (or at least not any more). No one’s gotten down to
it yet to investigate, but it could also be a an escape pod for
Mother Damnable, a portal of sorts for the Loyal League if
their efforts at creating Hell turn out to be too unstable. This
is assuming that it exists at all.
Individuals looking for the bunker should be on guard; if
it is Infrastructure, suborned or not, it’s bound to be guarded
by more than just its remote location. If it’s a strictly human
creation, getting to it still has its complications. And if it’s a
new phenomenon that’s been written into the local memory…
well, that has implications for what other reality edits might
have been put in place, and by whom.

The underground in downtown Seattle houses an awakened thieves' market where almost anything can be bought and sold.

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