By Gianmaria Franchini
Buried underneath pavement and sidewalk, underground cities safeguard a layer of the American Northwest’s bawdy past.
Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood hasn’t changed much since it was threatened with the wrecking ball in the early 1960’s. An antique and intricate metal awning protects loiterers from the rain. Sailors in uniform mingle with a midday crowd, while drunks and homeless rest on nearby benches. Below, a subterranean city attracts intrepid travelers in search of Seattle’s buried and eccentric history.
Bill Speidel, an iconic local figure and dubious historian, whose book Sons of the Prophets focuses on the “mistakes, sins, sewers, and scandals” that built the Seattle underground, began giving tours of the interred neighborhood in 1965 to save Pioneer Square from destruction. Since then, the area has become an historic neighborhood, and Speidel’s Underground Tour Company still operates off of First Avenue in the center of the square.
With an affable manner and a touch of deprecating humor, underground tour guide Terrylin gave a brief history lesson before leading a motley group of visitors around Pioneer Square and underneath it. In a prime example of what Terrylin calls “Seattle determination,” the city was built on 1600 acres of swampland. “Even if it’s a bad idea, you stick with it,” she joked. The city was plagued with floods and miasmic sewage leaks until a fire destroyed 25 square blocks of its old downtown in 1889. City officials then mandated that new construction take place over the old ground-level. Ground floors became basements, and new sidewalks were built next to second-story windows. Entrances to the underground are usually accessible only through back alleys and side streets.
Speidel’s Underground Tour Company advertises with a flare for the scandalous. Flyers announce “Dirt! Corruption! Sewers!” and Terrilyn intersperses her tour with anecdotes of the sordid history of the port city’s underworld. In recent memory, however, the most shocking event to take place beneath the streets was a marriage. “One of our tour guides got ordained to perform her brother’s ceremony, and we put an ad in the back of an alternative weekly,” Terrylin said. “Some people took the bait.”
For visitors with a fondness for the truly indecent, Underground Tours offers guided nocturnal excursions of Seattle’s historic Red-Light district. Advertised with lewd nouns such as “Opium! Graft! Sex!” and “Debauchery!” the underworld tour caters to the adult 21 and over crowd. “I like to say that the underworld tour is less innuendo and more straight up hookers and drugs,” said tour manager Penny Truitt. “We talk about some of the stories that during the daytime with families wouldn’t necessarily be appropriate.”
Two hundred miles to the south, Portland’s underground consists of networked tunnels once used to hide and transport victims of systematized kidnappings. In a process called “shanghaiing,” unwary bar patrons would disappear underground so that merchant and navy vessels could pick them up and work them without pay. The eponymous Shanghai bar on Ankeny Street near the waterfront is partly built into one of these tunnels. Downstairs, the bar exudes a murky atmosphere evocative of Seattle’s underground.
Over blaring music from Tom Petty, bartender John Sherman explained the origin of the bar’s name. “Back in the day this was a basement, there were trapdoors right here,” he said, pointing. “Whoever was left at the end of the night â€“ wasted or whatever â€“ they’d pull the trapdoor, the guy would fall down, they’d take him through the tunnel, and sell him as slave labor on a ship on the way to Shanghai.”
Tours of the Portland Tunnels are available through the non-profit educational Cascade Geographic Society. The group has a taste for the dramatic as well. “The tunnels are completely different [than those in Seattle],” curator Michael P. Jones said. “Ours took place because of Shanghaiing and vice.” According to Jones, the Shanghai tunnels rank 10th on the History Channel’s list of most haunted places in North America. Figuratively and historically speaking, the tunnels are a collective closet for the city’s ghosts and skeletons, a storehouse of the city’s notorious past.
However, According to Jones, the tunnels and its store are threatened from above. Increased construction aboveground has impacted the Shanghai tunnels, and Jones considers that there is a possibility they will disappear without help. For the past 14 years he has been working on preservation and restoration projects with teams of volunteers. Jones is eager to speak about the tunnels, and his knowledge and devotion are evident; his first foray into the tunnels was at age seven, and he has been researching their history all his life. Jones believes the tunnels â€“ resident ghosts included – should be safeguarded. “Never take history for granted,” he said with a hint of premonition. “It is important to preserve all aspects of it.”
In Seattle, Terrylin had practical advice for incautious travelers: “Don’t get lost in the gift shop. You’ll need a map to get out.”