If you are walking downtown in Seattle, you may notice purplish, semi-transparent rectangles clustered at certain points in the sidewalk. Besides adding interest and beauty, these glass cobbles serve a practical purpose as well. In the 1800s, these types of skylights were a popular way to light basements before electric light was available. Found in cities all across the US, they signify something very important to Seattle’s history, The Underground.
A Shifting Foundation
Settlers in Seattle built the beginnings of the city on filled-in tide flats. After chronic flooding and eventually the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, it was clear that something had to be done. The town’s streets were regraded to around twelve feet higher, and a network of alleyways and basements were left down below. By 1909 the city condemned the underground for fear of Bubonic Plague; a fear no doubt spurred by the burgeoning rat population underneath the city. The Underground was sealed up and left to the rats and urban spelunkers until the 1960s when Bill Speidel restored a portion of the underground and founded Bill Speidel’s Underground tour.
An Activity for All Ages
The tour guides for Bill Speidel’s Underground tours will capture the imaginations of all ages. In addition to the underground, they carefully include context and valuable city history, both above and below the street. The experience is striking in a way that makes one consider the history of the modern city, engineering successes (and failures), and the marvelous oddities of our built environment. To add to the overall spookiness of clambering through poorly lit underground passages; consider opting for a late afternoon or early evening tour. If you’re lucky, you may even encounter a rat on its way to another meal.
A View from Below
Following a tour group down the steel alleyway stairs, perhaps under a constant drizzle somewhat typical to a Seattle afternoon, the first thing you will notice are the dusty beams of light breaking up the subterranean scenery. Looking up, you will notice the underside of those glass tiles thoughtfully installed for natural lighting so many years ago. Looking around you will see some discarded furniture, evidence of rodents, perhaps a mannequin for good measure. And in the anticipation of what is to come, the beams of light shining from the glass skylights embedded in the sidewalk above will provide welcome checkpoints in this interactive historical experience.
A Family That Travels Together…
One of the best benefits of family travel is the increased opportunities to bond with loved ones. While admittedly more difficult with ever-present hand-held distractions, there is a connection born out of feeling lost together; not always having the answer, not knowing what will come next, relying on each other in a new experience because you want to cling to a scrap of familiarity. It brings us closer together in a way that is more than just snapping us out of a routine. The Seattle Underground tour is the perfect blend of “spooky evening out” and “educational afternoon” to enjoy as a family. No wonder it is a tourism staple for the city along with Pike Place Market and the Fremont Troll.
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