My Adventures in Underground Seattle
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
The 1972 "Kolchak" film The Night Strangler depicted a vampiric alchemist who dwelt in a city buried beneath Seattle. There were two Kolchak films which were the inspiration for Chris Carter's The X-Files. With scripts by the excellent Richard Matheson, the Kolchak films far exceeded in merit the goofier series that followed. The films held, in their day, the record for most viewers of any television program. Two-thirds of America sat mesmerized before their sets soaking up the horror -- & having their first exposure to the idea that there was another city buried beneath Seattle. The majority of these millions of viewers must've regarded the idea as a cleverly applied myth but nothing real. Seattlites knew better.
I have wandered long "streets" of Underground Seattle below 1st avenue, next to the Farmer's Market, under the Pioneer Square, & under Chinatown. I began exploring this area when I was a teenager circa 1964/66 -- I probably made my last visit circa 1982. Much of what I strode no longer exists, but some bits of it are still there.
The places described in my novelette "A Child of Earth & Hell" first anthologized in The Berkley Showcase & included in my collection A Silver Thread of Madness -- they were places I actually visited.
As my dad told it, when he was an urchin "back between the wars" all the various parts of the underground were still linked & you could walk the fifteen or twenty blocks without ever coming up for sunlight. Sadly skyscrapers need to be rooted deep in the earth & only a few discontinuous pockets of the underground survive anymore. Some other portions have been sandblasted clean, re-opened as boutiques, so are really nothing but basements of the above-ground. At Doc Maynard's Tavern you can still buy a ticket to be taken on a tour of the underground, but it's not much to see nowadays, & the really interesting remaining bits are too dangerous to take tours through.
What happened was the city burned down & left these tough brick shells of the main part of the old city. Since the area had been repeatedly inundated as a saltwater flat, it was decided to lay down iron beams & build a new, higher city on top of the old. Some of the underground that still survives, you can see the doors, windows, archways & they've all been bricked up to strengthen them as "foundation." But no one quite knew how tall & how heavy the above-ground would one day become. In the early 1970s, the old Olympic Hotel, long disused, collapsed into the Underground. Half the building laid down flat along First Avenue at three in the morning. By a miracle no cars were on the street, no tramps inside the Olympic. No one saw or heard the collapse. A police officer, first on the scene, reported having seen what he thought was a great cloud of smoke & rushed to the Pioneer Square expecting a fire, but the street was full of the rubble of the Olympic & the rising plume of "smoke" was only the dust of ages. For ten years afterward there was a big pit where they scooped out what remained of the Olympic. A plywood fence to keep people from tumbling into the pit became a prime location for poster- & flyer-announcements of punk musical events. Through small windows cut in the wood, you could see on all sides of the Olympic crater entrances to the underground.
For decades after the Underground was created, the buried buildings continued to be used by the poor. Japantown had been so far out on the tideflats that it was like Venice; everyone got around in boats -- asian "slipperboats" passed under "drum-bridges" & the historical photographs of Japantown are strikingly beautiful despite the poverty & decay. The slightly richer & older Chinatown was around the area that is now the brick park at Occidental in the Pioneer Square (the rough brick ground is made out of salvage from the old city). A new city ordinance said no yellow man could set foot past Occidental which became premium property after the fresh-built city; hence the name Occidental. Since the Chinese had no place else to live, many migrated into the buried burnt out brick houses. In parts of the Underground I explored in the 1960s & 1970s, I saw Chinese writings on many walls. Even when a new Chinatown was established beyond King Street Station, & only the poorest of the poor needed to live underground, & buried their dead underground when laws were passed protecting the mortuary business in a manner that made traditional buddhist interments illegal, there were still Tong societies's gambling enterprises, & opium dens, in the Underground.
Neither was all the Underground immediately abandoned by businesses. The new city's sidewalks had thick glass windowpanes imbedded in the concrete. You couldn't see through the glass but it let light in. There were sub-sidewalks that permitted access to the old buildings which were used as storage basements (some accessible only by elevators that rose out of the sidewalks) & even a few open shops with "tunnel" walkways in front. But the problem with rainwater flooding & with a growing population of horses whose feces & urine washed into the underground meant it was all slowly abandoned. The Doc Maynard tour for many years included a walk through an underground department store that had a toilet mounted up near the ceiling -- & the guide explained that the toilet had to be up there because sewage would back during high tide; their amusing claim that Underground Seattle was created then abandoned because of the invention of the flushing crapper is an exaggeration, but was certainly a contributing factor.
A few places you will still see the sidewalk-windows survive -- they look like really thick soda pop bottle bottoms arranged in six by eight foot concrete panes. There used to be a few iron grates as well. My dad said as a lad he & other rowdies would stand on the grates facing each other, wait for someone to pass by underneath, & piss on him. Since pervs would stand under the grates hoping to see under some passing woman's garments, it could be argued the rowdy kids were providing a just service. As a kid my dad also delivered the Post-Intelligencer to underground Chinatown. He'd lower a batch of newspapers down a manhole on a rope, & draw up a can with nickels in it. He never saw any of the customers.
My dad's childhood strolls under first avenue from the Market to the Pioneer Square are no longer possible even for the boldest explorer. But since First has remained a street throughout this time, a lot of it is still a corridor of buried city.
The last really impressive & off-the-tourist route bit of the Underground was the "wall" along Western Avenue -- a varying landscape 20 to 100 foot drop-off from First Avenue above, running from the Pioneer Square to the Farmer's Market. All of First Avenue along that patch was built atop one to four story buildings "leveling" what was formerly a long slope from Jackson (south end of Pioneer Square) that once ran into the tideflates, to the Market's hilltop at about Pine.
While today's condominiums were being built one after another near the Market, for several years a huge part of the underground was exposed to the air at two points along that cliff wall. About 1982 the upper end of Western exposed one-story buildings skirting Post Alley. A large area fenced off as dangerous was easy to climb into. I went in several times. By day it was abandoned but the evidence of an extensive night-time community was obvious -- it was a natural homeless shelter. After a few years new buildings went up in the area, making that part of the underground under First Avenue pretty much unreachable.
Another easy access point to the Underground was two blocks down the Western Avenue incline, where the buried buildings were two stories tall. A zigzagging wooden stairway linked a dead-end street just off First Avenue to Post Alley down below. Behind this wooden sidewalk, bums had loosened boards to create ad hoc doorways into the Underground. The wooden stairway replaced by concrete & steel in the 1980s, & the wall sealed, yet a couple more blocks further south on Post, well into the 1990s, there remained a three-story-tall underground section exposed to light & plainly visible from Western. For some few years, while awaiting new building structures to be put there, it was made into one of most rustic yet nicest little parks in the city. The wall itself had poplars growing in front of it, signs warning "do not climb" & a storm fence that was pretty high but you could get over it with small effort. The park grounds was made up of boardwalks above swampy ground thickly planted with short leafy greenery that liked extreme dampness. I spent a lot of time there sitting on the board sidewalk with my lunches. I often took chums from out of town down a steep stairway (which ran alongside a second stairway that stopped mid-air!) then through the alley to this little park with the old city as crumbly backdrop. I especially remember the awe in the eyes of my friends the Moritas from Japan. That wall of old brick buildings was simply phenomenal. It proved it was no little town that got buried -- it really was a city.
Train tunnels also went under Seattle & these linked to the Underground. In the 1990s while old tunnels were being extended, adapted, & turned into bus tunnels, parts of the old city were revealed as far "inland" as sixth avenue. But every time an old building comes down & a skyscraper goes up, another block of the underground is dug out, replaced with modern basement garage structure, & forever gone.
One more fragment of the underground appeared when the original Olde Curiosity Shoppe's rotting dock was torn out (the Shoppe still exists but no longer on its original pier). At that time the free small-boat moorage was removed & the last section of Seattle waterfront where you could walk down & touch the water was never replaced (imagine a waterfront city without even a token beach -- madness). While replacing that rotted dock you could see a "waterfront" row of buildings under Alaska Way, the floors of which being four or six feet underwater. Evidently the tide flats extended out for a couple hundred feet so these submerged buildings were once above the tide line except during storms or unusually high tides that had afflicted the early city generally. But the Army Corp of Engineers created an artificial deepwater port to compete with Tacoma & Portland by digging out the flats. Few people know that one of the great engineering wonders of the world is in Puget Sound, a long sub-Sound dam that is keeping Seattle from sinking into the sea & transforming what was once tide flats & beaches into deepwater pier-lined waterfront for three-score blocks. If terrorists ever took out that entire damn, Seattle could end up the next Atlantis.
As you may have gathered, this extensive underground did not occur all at once. The great Seattle fire was the first big part of it, but in successions the underground was "completed" because of the problem with saltwater inundation, the invention of the toilet which caused incoming tides to fill buildings with sewage, the creation of the artificial deepwater port, the abandonment of basements, with those last parts of the underground that were long used becoming impractical from horse-sewage above & disease & rats below.
There's an underground boutique mall & a separate antique mall at Occidental Park & near the old iron Pergola. These & the cafe-basement of Elliot Bay Books & a couple basement restaurants & bars in that area, have been sandblasted clean & restored for use. Take a good look at the walls. For all the tacky touristy trashiness of the shops as a whole, they've mostly & wisely refused to stucco or build over these antique walls. In many places you will see where long ago windows & doors led to well-lit streets that are now at least twenty feet below the surface.
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