Seattle Underground

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay

Many cities involve massive resculpting of the pre-urban landscape, and Seattle is a city with a particularly extreme story. William Speidel's Sons of the Profits tells the colorful story of Seattle's early years.

So Here's My Plan...

In 1852, a boatload of settlers, including Charles Terry and Arthur Denny (interesting that both have two first names) arrived to found a town at Alki Point. The idea was to find a place about halfway down Puget Sound so that ships sailing to and from Olympia and Tacoma would inevitably pass by. The town would be a convenient place to get supplies and transfer goods. The town wasn't too successful as an anchorage, but with Gold Rush San Francisco burning down on a regular basis, it soon became clear that lumber was the key to wealth.

When two members of the expedition staked out the entire area, leaving Denny out of the arrangement, he stalked off to found a rival town. Most of the shoreline around Puget sound consisted of tide flats, steep bluffs, or both. He finally found a small island nearly surrounded by tidal flats. It had the advantage of deep water nearby. On the mainland were steep bluffs dissected by deep ravines. As historian Welford Beaton put it, nature gave the area enormous natural resources but "left the townsite itself like a rumpled, unmade bed."

These scenes are probably pretty representative of the original topography, with shallows offshore and steep coastal bluffs.

The map above, based on a sketch in Speidel, shows the approximate original topography. Present-day streets are shown. Light blue is former water, green is coastal lowland and yellow is bluffs.

A sawmill was set up on the island, logs were skidded down the bluffs, down "Skid Road," and the tidal flats around the island were gradually filled in with sawmill debris. Other flats were filled in with earth or dredgings and a town grew up on the made land. To add to the confusion, two rival surveyors laid out streets on two different plans, so that in southern Seattle streets run north-south but in the northern section of downtown they run northeast-southwest.

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.

Seattle has some hills that San Francisco would envy. These, near Pioneer Square, are much gentler than they were originally because of the post-fire regrading.
Underground stores like this are reminders that some building owners opted to keep their original entrances.
On Pioneer Square
Totem pole in Pioneer Square
After a briefing in this ornate former hotel lobby, tours depart into the labyrinth under the streets.
Most older cities have glass blocks set in the sidewalk to serve as windows to cellars below, and Seattle is no exception. The light supports miniature ecosystems (below).
After hearing what this part of town was built on, I was amazed it didn't simply sink into the ooze after any significant earthquake. The underlying goop has compacted, as shown by the interesting topigraphy of this floor (left and below).
Toilets in the old section of town were raised because the sewer lines were at or below tide level and waste got flushed in and out with the tide. Laying new sewers was one of the additional objectives of the regrading project.
Subsidence due to compaction of old mudflats and sawdust fill.
Old wooden water mains.
Left and below: you don't ornament a basement like this, evidence that this was once an exterior doorway.

About Chief Seattle

Chief Seattle was a canny guy who saw advantages to working with the settlers. His principal contribution to Seattle was not burning it down. In 1856 some of the local tribes attacked the town. Had Seattle added the 4000 or so warriors under his control to the 1500 or so attacking the town, the one-day Indian war might have turned out quite differently. Not surprisingly, some Indian authors regard him as a traitor, others as a leader who made some difficult decisions that ultimately turned out to be harmful.

After that, agreeing to have the town named after him was a relatively minor contribution. He argued that having the town named after him would disturb his ghost, and that it would be only fair for the settlers to compensate him for his distress in the afterlife. In effect, he persuaded the town founders to pay royalties for the use of his name. RIAA, eat your heart out.

The one thing Chief Seattle did not do was utter that famous ecological speech so often attributed to him. The speech was written by Ted Perry for a 1972 film. The dead giveaway is the supposed line "I have seen a thousand rotting buffaloes on the prairie, left by the white man who shot them from a passing train." Seattle never saw a buffalo, whose range barely extended into eastern Washington. Also, at this time (supposedly 1854 - seven years before the start of the Civil War) there were no railroads in the Great Plains.

Return to Historic Sites Index
Return to Virtual FieldTrips Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 15 November 2005, Last Update 09 June 2020