Seattle Low Life

"People in Seattle don't tan - they rust" proclaim the bumper stickers. They're right: situated at the top of the US west coast Seattle's normal climate is a lot of rain and even more drizzle.

Most Australian visitors see Seattle merely as a picturesque modern city of half a million people. Its main industry is at Boeing Field where the Qantas aircraft that brought them from Australia are built.

For an in-depth glimpse of Seattle's murky past I embarked on a 90 minute, US$4 Underground Tour at Pioneer Square. After gathering in the bar that is the tour company's headquarters, about 20 of us followed our guide down iron steps to the earth floor that was the original city footpath, one floor below the modern level. As we passed disused doorways and shops long forgotten, we were told how Seattle's history is inextricably linked to the development of the flush toilet.

Seattle began in 1852 as a tiny settlement on a mud flat with a cliff behind. It had a great harbour but a terrible town site. Horses regularly sank to their chests in mud and one unfortunate schoolboy drowned crossing downtown Jackson St. Unperturbed, the ambitious settlers first thought to call the place "New York" because a) the name was a proven success, and b) it was a name everyone knew and remembered. Wiser counsel prevailed: Seattle takes its name from an Indian chief.

Walking past a 19th century corner store, we learnt that Seattle gave the world the term "skid row". As a timber town, the original village had one very unusual feature: a street leading down to the harbour was kept coated in dogfish oil so logs could slide down it to the mill. Several pedestrians were killed by passing logs. Decades later this part of the city was run-down and Seattle's "Skid Road" became the universal bums' hang-out.

The high point of our tour was a dilapidated toilet on a raised pedestal. Even though pioneer Henry Yesler declared "you wouldn't put an outhouse next to your bedroom", early Seattle enthusiastically embraced Thomas Crapper's new flush toilet. Unfortunately, so close to sea level, high tide caused them to back-flush a metre or more above the bowl. To avoid this some quick thinkers raised their toilets six metres above ground level and installed ladders. This gave Seattle a very unusual skyline. The sole remaining edifice isn't very high but it's certainly in original condition!

We were lucky that there's anything of early Seattle left to see: in 1889 the predominantly-wooden city caught fire. At the time the fire chief was in San Francisco lecturing on fire prevention. However, one of his innovations was put into effect: the area around the fire was blown up to stop the fire spreading. It's a good idea and later worked well in the San Francisco fire. But, sadly, Seattle's veteran explosives expert was old and slow so the effect of his blasts was to spread burning timber all over the city: 60 blocks were destroyed.

Firefighting efforts were further hampered by random bullets from 50 tonnes of ammunition in blazing hardware stores. For the rest of the tour I engaged in a fruitless search for bullet holes in the dusty shop facades.

After the fire, the new city shot up. Then townsfolk decided time was ripe to raise the street level and solve the sewerage problem. But to avoid burying the many shops operating at ground level, the streets were raised but not the footpaths. A contemporary city plan would show a waffle-like grid with the streets as the raised bits.

Pedestrians remained at a disadvantage: after leaving a shop they climbed stairs to road level, crossed the road and descended again to footpath level. At least 17 people died falling from the road to the footpath.

Farther on, we stopped to peer through some skylights now pink with age. These clear glass tiles were fitted to provide light to the shops below when the sidewalks were inevitably raised. Seizing the advertising opportunity, the city's 2,000 prostitutes discarded their underwear and took to writing their names and addresses on the soles of their shoes.

It must have worked. The boom times of the Alaskan gold rush saw more than US$100 million in gold flow into the fleshpots of Seattle. The city prospered and the original streetscape was forgotten, a Pacific Pompeii, until the late populist historian Bill Speidel cleaned up some subterranean sidewalks in 1965 and started his tours.

We emerged into daylight covered in dust and weak from laughter. A drunk staggered over to bum money while we were still in a good mood. As we dispersed, I looked around the Seattle skyline with new appreciation: Seattle's history of greed and civic disasters makes even Australia's colonial past look altruistic and well organised.

David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd