Beneath the Streets is a tour company with an entrance on Cherry Street in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Six times each day beginning at 10:30 am, Beneath the Streets offers small group (ours was about 20) walking tours that include Seattle’s Underground. Once a notoriously bad town, Seattle began where no urban area should ever have been built.
In its first incarnation, Seattle was a lumber community. Henry Yesler, who became Seattle’s mayor, ran a sawmill beginning in 1852 on the edge of it. During this era, a new term was created, skid row. Skid Road became an early nickname for the area of Pioneer Square affected by this sawmill, an urban expanse covered in sawdust. Greased logs were slid or skidded down a hillside to the mill after being freshly cut.
Then the city burned to the ground in 1889. The good news for locals was that at least a million rats were incinerated. The streets of the rebuilding town had to be raised. This created an Underground that still partially exists. For a period of time, Seattle’s citizens had to climb ladders to cross streets. This was especially difficult for ladies wearing corsets. The city that rose over the tidal flats contained a lot of Richardson Romanesque buildings, the popular style at that time. The city grew to 43,000 people. Skylights using a new type of lighting called electricity were built into sidewalks. A few remain as evidence of this unusual urban practice.
During its 2nd incarnation Seattle became the outfitting city for potential miners heading for The Klondike after 1896. Future prospectors shopped in Seattle’s Pioneer Square to be outfitted. They HAD to take food, tools, and anything they would need with them. Store owners old and new thrived. So did prostitution, drinking, and gambling.
During Prohibition when speakeasies sprang up, liquor was stored in The Underground, which was still beneath the growing city. In the 1980s and 90s this neighborhood became an active bar scene when Grunge Music reigned and such groups as Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains gained national reputations. The 2001 earthquake caused lots of building demolitions in Seattle, and Pioneer Square became seedy. Now it’s moving upward again. Weyerhaeuser’s new corporate headquarters came into the neighborhood 2 years ago, new construction is booming, and the King Street Station now gives easy access to this area not too far from CenturyLink and Safeco Fields.
The Beneath the Streets tour begins in a place that The Underground shares with Spooked in Seattle and ends in Comedy Underground. Being under the streets on this tour is both eerie and fascinating. What you see is never beautiful except for the light coming through the sidewalk skylights, but it is unique to this city.