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What is the Seattle Underground?

The Seattle Underground is a major tourist attraction in Seattle, Washington.
Illegal bars and speakeasies were common in the Seattle Underground during Prohibition.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 24 September 2014
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The Seattle Underground is a tourist attraction in Seattle, Washington that resulted from city planning after the destruction of a large number of downtown buildings during the Great Seattle Fire in the late 19th century. If you’d visited Seattle before 1889, the buildings and shops were constructed at a lower level. This created problems for residents and businesses, since areas of the business section in town would and did flood.

After the fire, creative city planners decided to arrest these problems by raising the level of most of the buildings. Some buildings that had survived the fire still had lower entrances, which meant walking down, or up a few flights of stairs to get where you needed to go. Ultimately, buildings were remodeled to give street access.

Unfortunately, the Seattle Underground became the site of unsavory activities. Illegal liquor establishments during Prohibition flourished in the Seattle Underground. In fact most people avoided the Seattle Underground due to fear of crimes and of catching potentially contagious illnesses. Most of the old basements from surviving buildings were condemned, yet interest in them flourished in the 1960s.

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Much of the Seattle Underground is decidedly unsafe, but parts of it, located under Pioneer Square have been restored and made safe for tours. This restoration has been influenced greatly by Seattle resident Bill Speidel, who decided to begin offering tours to the less dangerous parts of the Seattle Underground in 1965. Due to the old architecture, and the history associated with the Seattle Underground, these tours have become increasingly popular.

You can tour the Seattle Underground with Bill Speidel’s company, and you may be surprised by some of the things available to do there. For instance, some couples have gotten married in the Seattle Underground. The tour covers about three blocks underneath the city, but much of it is on uneven ground, and the weather can be chilly. Speidel’s group recommends bringing a warm jacket and good walking shoes for the trip.

You can even dine at the Seattle Underground Café, certainly a place with lots of moody lighting. One of the surprise aspects of the tour is a number of portraits by mostly local artists of Seattle’s past residents of note. There are also several places to stop and note artifacts of Seattle’s past. On a tour you’ll get plenty of information about early Seattle, and the seamy side of the Underground during its condemned years. You do need to book a tour of the Seattle Underground in advance — Speidel’s company recommends booking the tour at least two weeks ahead of your planned visit.

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