Photographer Alan Berner goes on a tour of the Seattle underground. The journey into Pioneer Square's underbelly “never gets old,” says guide Chris Allen.
Those purple glass bricks in the sidewalks of Pioneer Square are skylights to the underworld of Seattle — the former street level. The Great Seattle Fire of 1889 destroyed the wooden buildings — the entire central business district, about 30 square blocks. It led to a rebuilt Pioneer Square made of masonry and a raising of the street level one story. The rebuild was needed for many reasons, including tidal problems. The tide goes out and the tide comes back, just as it did then. But before the reconstruction, the incoming tides sometimes flooded buildings with sewage and seawater. In 1907, wooden flooring was paved over and a moving carpet of rats was eliminated. During the 75-minute underground tour, guides including Chris Allen offer history, anecdotes and a quick-paced patter filled with humor. Not surprising for a person with a comedy and improv background. “I love making people laugh in life, and I have a job where I get to make people laugh and teach them something,” Allen said. He says he’s constantly researching local history. The guides have four stories they must tell: the Great Seattle Fire, the construction of the underground, the history of the seamstresses, and the Gold Rush. Seamstresses is code for the prostitutes who came to make a living and work in the many brothels, built to serve loggers, miners, sailors and gamblers. The Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush sparked local growth and commerce outfitting seekers of fortunes up north in 1897. Former newspaper reporter Bill Speidel started the tours as a publicity stunt in 1965 to get signatures on a petition for a historically preserved district. He placed an ad in the paper, “saying come down to Pioneer Square, and I’ll show you the old tunnels and teach you about Seattle history,” says Allen. It was on Memorial Day weekend and hundreds showed up. He thought, “I’ve got something here,” and the business quickly grew. Tours take place every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. They’re in about three blocks of leased space beneath the historic buildings. In the peak summer season, up to 1,000 a day go underground. Allen says, “It never gets old. I’m seeing it through fresh eyes, to people who’ve never heard the stories. I teach people about something I really love.”