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Seattle’s Hidden Underground City Tells A Fascinating Story

Living in a big city, it is easy to think that the only way to get back in touch with your history is by visiting a museum or going to a library and checking out some musty old books from the library.
History buffs will tell you that there is a story just waiting to be discovered everywhere you look! Even in those crowded and modern cities lays a past just sitting there hidden until someone comes along to unearth it once more.
The city of Seattle is a perfect example of all the secrets of history that await you just beneath those busy streets. When one man in the 1950s started digging, he unearthed a piece of Seattle’s past that will leave you mesmerized.
There is an entire abandoned city living just beneath the surface of Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Beneath the roads and skyscrapers are the remnants of the old city. These ancient shops, homes, and hotels are now open to the public and make for unique visits.

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The Seattle Underground Tour takes tourists deep inside the forgotten world of Seattle as it was in the early 1900s. Building facades, like the one pictured below, would have been at the street level in the 1800s. They were all wiped out during the Great Seattle Fire on June 6, 1889.

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That day, sometime after 2:30 in the afternoon, a cabinetmaker, an employee in Victor Clairmont’s woodworking shop by the name of Jonathan Edward Black, accidentally forgot the glue that he was heating over a gasoline fire.

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The glue that he had forgotten boiled and caught fire, hitting the floor, which was covered in wood chips and turpentine. He tried to put the fire out with water but that only made the fire worse because of the turpentine on the ground. 

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Everyone inside of the building managed to escape uninjured, but the fire was rapidly spreading. The fire chief of Seattle was out of town that day, and the intense smoke at the scene made it impossible for volunteer firefighters to locate the source of the blaze. Plus, they used all of the water hoses at once, killing the water pressure.

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The rapidly spreading fire hit an opera house, and then a local liquor store. The booze inside acted as an accelerant. The fire was picking up pace. Before anyone could blink, the entire block was going up in flames.

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The fire did not stop until 3 a.m. It left unimaginable damage in its wake. Over 25 blocks were destroyed and more than 5,000 people lost their jobs. However, miraculously, no one had died in the massive blaze.

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After the fire, the leaders of the city came together to talk about how to keep this from ever happening again. They decided that all future buildings would be made of brick or stone, and that the streets themselves would be elevated by 22 feet. 

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When the store owners learned of these changes, they understood that this meant their “first floors” would become basements. Once the new sidewalks were in place, many shopkeepers moved their businesses upstairs, while others stayed put in their new basements.

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That all changed in 1907 when the threat of the bubonic plague hit the city of Seattle. The city condemned these basement businesses and for the most part shop owners boarded them up and left to rot. However, some of them were turned into speakeasies or opium dens.

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These dens of vice transformed the abandoned underground city into a secret world of crime. Junkies and sex workers prowled the darkened basement alleyways and gamblers in need of their next quick game could always find someone to take their money. That all changed in the 1950s…

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That is when a local Seattle citizen and historian named Bill Speidel realized how important it was to preserve this underground and forgotten part of Seattle’s past. He got to work, and the tours available to see the secret now are the end result of everything he strived for.

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Isn’t it amazing how stories like this one that so often go unnoticed are just under our noses waiting to be discovered? Thank goodness Bill Speidel had the drive to clean up the underground city and bring it back to the light.
Share this story with your friends who love history!


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