Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Low-Down Fun

History combines with humor on Seattle's Underground Tour.

By Paul Gerald

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Before leading us in, our guide reminds us that "It's our job to take you into the Underground; it's your job to find your way out." Then she throws open the door, yells "back!" at an imaginary (we hope) throng of rats, and welcomes us to Old Seattle.

We descend a rickety set of steps and find ourselves, once again, on a city street, looking at a storefront. Only we're under the streets and sidewalks of current Seattle. Our guide tells us that 25 blocks of the old Pioneer Square district have hollow sidewalks, "Which means that all the pollution and filth of modern-day life will be safely over your head during our tour today."

So begins the Underground Tour -- part history, part humor. The story of how Seattle wound up with "hollow" sidewalks is as interesting as the tour guides are funny. But just walking around the Underground (which you can't do on your own, anyway) wouldn't be all that interesting or fun. It's the tour guides who make the $7 ticket worthwhile.

First the history, courtesy of Bill Speidel's book Sons of the Profits. (Speidel runs the tour company, as well.) In the second half of the 19th century, Seattle wasn't nearly the boom town it is now. It was a logging town built on a mud flat below a 200-foot cliff covered with timber. (In fact, the term "skid road" was invented there; that's how they got the trees down to Elliott Bay.)

An 1887 survey found that 10 percent of Seattle's residents were young women who called themselves "seamstresses" and lived within a three-block area of Occidental Avenue. A committee of men was put together (after an intensive application process) to investigate, and after weeks of round-the-clock fact-checking, not a single sewing machine was found. (Our tour guide told us, "That's because the girls did much of their work by hand.")

But Seattle, which was built on landfill, developed an underground to deal with two grim realities: mud puddles so large that many of them were named (a headline of the day read "Boy Drowns in City Streets") and toilets which, twice a day when the tide came in, flushed backward. The first part of the solution was accidental: On June 6, 1889, Seattle burned to the ground. The second part of the solution was to literally raise downtown out of the mud.

After the fire, they built buildings with two doors, on the first and second floors, and then they started raising streets. For a while, with streets from 8 to 32 feet higher than sidewalks, a new form of death hit Seattle: No longer were boys drowning in streets, but 17 drunks fell to their deaths stepping off the streets.

Our guide told us that the period when the streets were raised but the sidewalks weren't "brought out the best in people. All these poor little society ladies were having to scale ladders to cross the streets and do their shopping, and they say that these rough-and-ready pioneer men would actually line up to stand underneath them and watch, in case they fell."

Eventually the sidewalks were raised, too -- inspired by various problems, including all those related to having horses 10 feet above the populace -- and Underground Seattle was formed. For a while, it was home to the homeless and opium dens and prostitution, but now civilized people tour it, while being battered with such jokes as "Did you hear about the guy who was late to the cannibal feast? They gave him the cold shoulder."

That one was just a time-filler between parts of the tour. At other times we whistled the song from The Bridge Over the River Kwai while marching in unison, threatened other tour groups with ass-kickings, screamed for help to see if we could get people on the streets above us to look into the gutters, and stopped when our guide said we were at a good spot for a photo -- and then struck a vampish pose in a busted-out window.

I can't say I remember much about the tour itself, as far as seeing buildings goes. I do recall that there was a hotel lobby with the bar intact, parts of the old wooden water-piping system, a few old gas-lantern fixtures, and a fair amount of random junk, including a box-and-springs mattress which our guide pointed out and said, "This is actually some of the old seamstress's equipment. See, their 'sewing machines' were actually these springers. Get it? Springer sewing machines? Okay, let's keep moving."

At one point there was a photo showing Seattle just before the fire. Our guide pointed out a few buildings and told us what was there now. She pointed at one and said, "Where this one was is now a Starbucks. There's also a Starbucks, let's see, here, and here, and here and here and here and here."

When it was over and we were perusing the gift shop, I tipped the guide and told her she should go into stand-up comedy. "You know," she said earnestly, "I tried stand-up for a while, but everybody just laughed at me."

I just walked off, shaking my head.


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