Fascinating tales below: Touring the tunnels under Seattle’s Pioneer Square

The broken chunk of overpass was suspended in midair, all raw, gaping exposed guts — bent rebar and crumbling hunks of concrete. It looked like something bad had happened, but actually it was something good. The Alaskan Way viaduct, a curving 3.5-kilometre stretch of elevated highway, completed in 1959 while the motor vehicle was at its zenith, was finally coming down, ending decades of separation between the city and its waterfront.

I had read about the project, so I wasn’t surprised when we came upon it while en route to Pike Place Market on a spring trip to Seattle.

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Watching machines scraping at concrete is enough to keep a dedicated infrastructure nerd captivated for hours — seeing other people working when you’re on vacation is always fun — but we were in Seattle for a few spring break nights to explore the legacy of a much earlier urban-renewal project: the tunnels under Pioneer Square.

As our guide Jim explained in an introductory talk for the Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour (based on the late Seattle Times columnist’s book about Seattle history, Sons of the Profits), Seattle was created on a tideflat of Elliott Bay in the 1850s. It might have been convenient to get to, but there was one pretty significant problem, especially as the settlement grew: high tide, which turned the mudflats into an island.

When the tide came in, what was supposed to stay down the pit toilet had a habit of coming up. And things didn’t improve when a shipment of 1,000 shiny white and blue toilets arrived in 1881.

With a skinny wooden pipe handling the output of what our other guide Eric called “24,000 roughage-eating pioneers,” a flush at the wrong time could result in a full house — delivered in a geyser of “sewage, saltwater and confused fish.”

So 130 years ago, on June 6, 1889, when an unlucky apprentice cabinet maker who was heating glue accidentally touched off a ferocious blaze that levelled 90 per cent of the town, it provided the ideal opportunity for a do-over.

The idea in rebuilding was to raise the streets higher, beyond the reach of high tide. The only trouble was that Seattle’s developers were impatient to get moving on construction. The compromise was to build not just a ground-floor entrance but another one storey up (and in at least one case, two storeys up), so when the sidewalk was raised to street level, you could get into the building without having to crawl through a window.

Raising the streets before the sidewalks created a short-term problem, however — how to get from the street to the building entrance using a sidewalk that was three to six metres below.

The solution was ladders, which worked fine when you were sober, but weren’t so convenient for those whose good judgment was dulled by alcohol. More than a dozen died in those gaping trenches — the origin, as your tour guide will tell you, of Seattle’s original “one-step program.”

When the sidewalks were finally raised, what remained was a series of odd tunnel spaces between the buildings and the retaining wall bearing the roadway.

Many building occupants used them for storage, but storing food attracted its own problems, primarily rats, which began to proliferate in the tunnels, leading to an outbreak of black plague. As Eric told us, the solution the city’s leaders came up with was to pay 10 cents each for rat tails, which soon generated a thriving business in breeding rats, thus proving once again the law of unintended consequences.

The tunnels were eventually condemned in 1907 and concrete poured over the floors. Aside from some heavy shaking in the 1946 earthquake, they remained mostly undisturbed until Speidel started his popular underground tours in 1965.

As we walked through the tunnels adjacent to the Scandinavian American Bank, the Korn building and the Pioneer building with about 40 other people — I would have liked a smaller group, but these tours are popular — I saw broken bricks, old doors, bedsprings and a former bank lobby, complete with a bank vault.

But to be honest, it’s not what you see down there so much as what you hear. The guides are master storytellers and spin tales about people such as brothel owner Madam Lou Graham (born Dorothea Ohben), Seattle’s “founding mother,” who ran a thriving team of what was politely called “seamstresses” and turned her business savvy into great wealth that reportedly went to support Seattle-area schools after her death.

After the tour, we found more urban-renewal projects. While wandering through Pioneer Square in the confused and sidewalk-clogging way of people looking for a place to eat lunch, we were approached by a friendly downtown ambassador who directed us to a nearby bakery. After we finally found it, which was a bit tricky as it was behind a huge metal cage on the street side, we went into a glassed-in breezeway between two buildings to eat at a long table.

The opposite end opened onto an old Pioneer Square park called Occidental Square, the focus of renewal efforts starting three years ago.

The plane-tree-shaded, brick-paved square is now dotted with colourful red and yellow metal tables and chairs, an astro-turfed corner for young children with a bookshelf with kids’ books and magazines for adults, two ping-pong tables, a foosball table and a stand-up connect-four game. A couple of people were installing a basketball hoop while we were there.

We played connect-four before moving on to ping pong when a table became free. Playing next to us was a rag-tag group of men engaged in a raucous game of doubles that I frequently had to dive into to retrieve the ball, which seemed to career off in strange directions every time it struck a paving brick.

On a break from the game, one of the men confided that he had been fired the day before by Target for failing to turn up for work after he’d partied too hard for his birthday. He said he was a poet, and upon invitation, recited some pretty fine street poetry he’d written about the experience.

Altogether, we were in the park for only about an hour but it turned out to be one of the highlights of our Seattle experience.

Next stop was another unexpected find: the 38-storey Smith tower, Seattle’s first highrise, completed in 1914. You can pay to go to the top, but we were delighted with just checking out the lobby, with its vintage bank of elaborately decorated, copper-lined old-school elevators that looked as if they were just waiting for an elevator man or woman to start calling out stops. On the second floor was the old switchboard room with a small interactive exhibit.

I wasn’t interested in hitting the Space Needle or Seattle Centre, but our hotel was pretty close to those attractions, and while we were in the neighbourhood, we stumbled across the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Centre, which turned out to be well worth the (free) admission.

I skipped the first room, which is all about the Gates, but I did find the next room quite fascinating: devices designers had come up with for making life better for people in poor countries, everything from menstrual pads made from cheap banana fibres to a toilet that produces reusable water and devices for keeping vaccines cool in hot countries.

In the last room, you can design your own product, create a poster and post a selfie with a slogan, all of which is posted on screens on a rotating basis around the room.

Our hotel on the edges of downtown, close to Lake Union, was near Denny Park, a lovely expanse of trees strung with twinkling white lights at night, presumably named for Seattle founder Arthur A. Denny. It also had a playground, a fenced dog park and those same red and yellow metal chairs and tables, which were well-used by picnickers.

With Seattle’s plethora of tech companies, and Google and Facebook offices not far away, we saw large numbers of young men wandering the neighbourhood with identity cards hanging from their necks.

It made me think of Asa Mercer, the man who went to great trouble and expense in the 1860s to bring back a boatload of young women as partners for its burgeoning population of single men employed in the timber and fishing industries.

Alas, there was no sign of any modern-day Mercer following suit to import partners for Seattle’s techies.

IF YOU GO

You don’t need a car to do anything we did in Seattle, as long as you’re staying downtown or close to it.

You can take the Clipper passenger ferry direct from Victoria to Seattle, two hours and 45 minutes, clippervacations.com. Or if you want your car, you can take the Coho ferry (cohoferry.com) to Port Angeles and drive the 90 minutes or so via US-101 E to Bainbridge Island, as we did. The Bainbridge ferry takes about half an hour and offers a nice view of downtown Seattle.

Tickets for Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour are available online up to one hour before the start of a tour: adults $19.11 US, seniors and students $17.37, kids $8.68. There is a $2.50 surcharge at checkout. Or call 206-682-4646, up to 30 minutes before a tour, or buy them at the ticket booth, pending availability: 614 1st Avenue, Pioneer Place Park, Pioneer Square, between Cherry and James Street. undergroundtour.com

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Discovery Centre is at 440 5th Ave. N., tel: 206-709-3100 ext.7100. It’s open Tuesday to Saturday from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. gatesfoundation.org

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