Born from the ashes: Seattle, a city built atop itself
Between the omnipresent rain, their beloved sports teams leaving, the active volcano sitting bubbling in their backyard, and all of their best celebrities dying, many throughout the years have considered Seattle to be somewhat of a “cursed” city.
And despite the current influx of tech money flooding downtown, there is always an eerie feeling around the Puget Sound of constantly waiting for the other Doc Martin to drop.
If it feels like the city was built on a burial ground, you really aren’t too far off. Someone far brighter than I could write a whole series on the history of native tribes in the region, including Chief Sealth, for whom after the city was named, another time, but for today, let’s explore the city beneath the city. Let’s explore: buried Seattle.
As mentioned above, the city doesn’t just feel like it was built atop a burial ground. It truly was!
But unlike many other societies in the western United States, it wasn’t erected over the remnants of a nation of indigenous people in the name of Manifest Destiny, instead, the Emerald City was actually built on top of a former version of the city itself. The first Seattle quickly and fiercely burned to the ground and what Macklemore would now consider being downtown, would actually be considered more like an “upstairs” to residents from the former city.
Just one cup, thanks
A quick and boring history lesson: Seattle is generally considered to be founded in 1851 by the Denny Party when their boats came crashing ashore Alki Beach in wonderful West Seattle. The new community was ever-so-creatively named “New York,” which really would have been confusing if it had stuck.
I guess that was their defacto name for a new city around that time. I understand there were 5,000 “Portlands” because that literally means a land near a port. But New York? C’mon Denny. Let’s try a little bit, you nerd!
“Landing at Alki and getting all depressed. (The Denny Party) came all that way, arrived in November. Grey skies, sickly, no roof on their cabin for about a year. No wonder I feel so at home in this city,” said Marty Reimer, longtime Seattle resident and popular radio personality.
Before too long they pulled themselves out of their funk, picked up camp and moved to what is now considered downtown to grab that “dee-luxe” log-cabin in the sky.
In the early years, Seattle was a logging town, which is ironic as it’s current Amazonian rise to prominence can also be traced back to the tree industry (you see, back in the early days of Amazon, they sold books, which way back in the ’90s were actually made of paper… which come from trees. In hindsight, I agree – that tie-in was a bit of a stretch).
The city kept rolling and grew rapidly as a known hub for prostitution and gambling. Seattle was beginning to look like the freewheeling liberal mecca that it ultimately came to be.
But all of that changed on June 6, 1889. A day featuring an event that would become known as “The Great Fire.” I told you, these guys weren’t the most creative “namers” in the world.
Can I have it extra hot, and with foam?
Legendary narc Billy Joel once emphatically proclaimed: “We Didn’t Start The Fire” and, yeah, no one ever suspected him of doing so. Sometimes I wonder if the Piano Man doth protest too much? But in the case of the Seattle fire, someone did.
On a fateful day in early June, a glue pot (which I guess was a real thing people kept laying around in those days) in the basement of a Pioneer Square cabinet shop boiled over and its foamy overflow did a very non-glue-like thing. Instead of simply sticking to everything it touched, the goo caused nearby wood shavings to erupt into flames.
Because back in that day everything in this logging town was made of wood, the fire took off with GUSTO and within mere minutes the fire had spread to nearby buildings and was quickly getting out of control.
The scene is painted in Murray Morgan’s 1951 book Silk Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle, with beautifully amazing detail:
Madame Feitsworth-Ewens, who specialized in reading the future by means of colored clamshells, was giving a customer some advice in the near-by Pontius Building… In the basement, James McGough, who ran a paint store and woodwork shop, was finishing a cabinet. His assistant was heating glue over a gasoline stove. Around 2:40 p.m. the glue boiled over. Some of it, falling on the stove, caught fire; flaming gobs of glue splashed on the floor, which was littered with wood shavings and soaked with turpentine. The flames spread over the boards. McGough tried to douse them with water from the fire bucket; the water mixed with the turpentine and burst into flame. McGough and his assistant fled.”
NOTE: If anyone out there is interested, it should be noted that in recent years, James McGough has been cleared of any wrongdoing however due to some inaccurate early reporting his name will forever be attached to The Great Fire. Fake news!
To further add to the increasing levels of suckitude, it was a low tide day on Seattle’s Elliott Bay, which meant that fire-fighters were unable to get any water to flow through their hoses. Yes, you read that correctly. The volunteer (or insurance-sponsored, depending on whose building you chose to occupy) fire department regularly used methods at this time that were only effective if the tide levels were cooperating. In hindsight, it’s fairly shocking the city had survived this long.
“When we look back at old techniques and technology, it’s a mixture of head shaking and being impressed by how much they could do with what was available,” said Beau Maples, a current firefighter for the Seattle Fire Department. “In the old days when the bells rang they had to hitch up horses and use steam-powered engines on carts. Just even training and taking care of the horses and getting them to march towards danger was a feat on its own.”
The fire ended up burning 29 city blocks which in 2019 would have been utterly devastating to the region’s artisanal microbrew community. The cities railroad terminals, business district (you know, where they did their gambling and picked up their dates for the evening) and the vast majority of their wharves got smoked beyond recognition. In spite of this, the next year the cities population jumped off escalating from 25,000 to nearly 40,000.
Admittedly, a large percentage of these people were drawn to town with the promise of construction work amid the cities rebuild, but hey, a number is a number!
Actually, can I make that a double?
Very soon after, construction began on this revised metropolis and instead of looking for a new patch of dirt to raise up, they decided, shoot – let’s pick up where we left off! City planners decided to erect the new city between 12 and 30 feet on top of the burnt wreckage, trapping what was left of the town under the feet of future residents. This had many advantages as the former sea-level community was prone to regular flooding and now toilets wouldn’t back-up as frequently when the tide came in. Again, so many problems with the tide.
“I don’t think it was foolish to rebuild on the same site. It speaks to the determination of the American people,” said Joshua Foley, a Lieutenant within a Seattle-area Fire Department. “It’s admirable that they changed the building codes and began to require fire-resistive building materials like brick. It would have been a tragedy if we didn’t learn from the event. It also helped to form the Seattle Fire Department, which I think is another positive outcome.”
For awhile Seattle-ites had to climb large ladders to get between the former street level and the front door of newly constructed businesses. Which, while great for their calves, must have been tough on any advertised carry-out mattress specials.
Shortly thereafter, the new cement-lined streets were completed roughly one to two stories above their former thoroughfares and walkable skylights (called ‘Pavement lights’) were installed to give light to those who still preferred to use the below walkways for generally nefarious activities before the city condemned them in 1907 out of fear that actively living amongst an underground valley of rats might inadvertently trigger The Bubonic Plague. Not sure how they came to that far-fetched conclusion but we are going to take their word for it.
“I do think it is a bit silly that we can predict when a large scale earthquake is imminent, but still decided to build a tunnel below sea level and under a man-made backfilled shoreline,” noted Lieutenant Foley, “I can foresee the next disaster as the “Great Seattle Tunnel Collapse.’”
Middle schoolers from all around the Puget Sound, as well as tourists who couldn’t get Space Needle tickets, can still pay for an hour or so of this cities trod-upon history by way of a long and urine-soaked Underground Tour happening many times daily beneath the current “Ultilikilts” shop in Pioneer Square. These tours lead them through narrow passageways where they can look up through the aforementioned skylights and personally bare witness to vagrants defecating right on top of them. The tour is actually pretty interesting if you were always curious what turn of the century opium dens smelled like.
“As far as the structural integrity of building on top of the old city, I’m not sure why they did it,” Firefighter Maples continued, “Hopefully someone smarter than me saw an engineering advantage to doing it that way.”
One more for the road
It’s almost fitting that now at the corner of 1st and Yesler, a Starbucks sits atop the former underground community of yesteryear Seattle. It was actually CEO Howard Schultz’ hand-picked 63rd Starbucks location, currently located only a mile or so shy of their worldwide “SoDo” offices. Starbucks, a company that some critics argue has a history of setting figurative fire to competitors before building atop their fallen ashes now rests atop a full city laying in ruin beneath them.
Over a century and a half of economic and cultural development have shaped this neighborhood introducing tattoo parlors, a bookstore, and a comedy club. And while the vast majority of the daily business-casual passerby don’t take every the slightest moment to reflect upon the hallowed ground they walk 20 feet above, they should deservedly take notice that a mere two Sonics-less basketball hoops below them lay the blueprint of a former society left buried by generations of oppressive societal and technological advancements.
Plus, when you are down below, you can watch the vagrants poop on your head. A win-win!