The Great Fire of 1889 was the best thing that could have happened to Seattle, now a high-tech hub and one of America’s most liberal cities. And as Joanna Wane discovers, it was the labours of a notorious underground “sewing circle” that once kept it afloat.
I’ve only been in town for a couple of hours and I can already tell this is my kind of place. Your typical Seattleite (as they’re called) is an eco-conscious atheist and heavy consumer of coffee who votes Democrat and helped make US history by electing an openly gay black woman, Sherry D. Harris, to public office – a seat on its city council – in 1991. Plastic shopping bags were banned here years ago. In 2014, a local ordinance was passed enforcing staged increases to the minimum wage, which will soon be the highest in the country. And when the US throws a national holiday to honour Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, Seattle celebrates Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Lou Graham, Seattle’s most infamous “seamstress”, would have approved of Angie, our tour guide. She’d have liked her spunk – if not her lurid hot-pink hair and dangerously tight bike pants. For a woman in 19th-century Seattle, even trousers were illegal. But men could wear dresses at Madame Graham’s genteel bordello, where asking for “the lady in black” was code for requesting the intimate company of a fellow gentleman.
Prostitution was illegal, but the cash-strapped city council relied heavily on revenue from working girls like Lou’s, who registered as seamstresses and paid a “sewing machine” tax of $10 a week – a deal Graham helped broker in return for the police turning a blind eye. “More city business was transacted at Lou’s than at City Hall,” writes Bill Speidel in his history of early Seattle, Sons of the Profits, titled with the flair of the newspaper man he once was.
It was Speidel who rediscovered the forgotten passageways buried beneath the city, after he led a campaign to protect Seattle’s oldest neighbourhood, Pioneer Square, from developers by having it designated as a historic district. He began taking members of the public down into the “underground” in the mid-1960s. Today, tours run on the hour, with the option of a more salacious adults-only version and a “paranormal experience” for ghost hunters, with specialist detecting equipment provided. Speidel died in 1988 but the family business is still run by his daughter Julie, a sculptor of some renown.
Seattle was built in the 1850s on mudflats, Angie tells us, and measurements for the site were mistakenly taken at low tide. One of the original settlers, a farmer enticed from Illinois by the offer of free land, wrote in his journal that he planned to find the “least-worst spot” and begin building – as soon as it stopped raining.
Henry Yesler, the wealthiest man in Seattle, was a profiteer and a scoundrel, according to Bill Speidel’s account. In his first term as mayor, Yesler hired a city secretary in the name of his 12-year-old niece in Ohio and then pocketed her salary. “He was a predator and a conman and a cheat,” says Angie. “And we did the only thing you can do with a man like that in America. We elected him. Twice!”
Yesler built a steam-powered sawmill on the waterfront and donated waste sawdust as landfill for the new town – a questionable act of generosity given its propensity to flood. In the 1870s, some visitors from Boston described the streets as intersecting rivers of oatmeal. When pressure from the incoming tide overloaded the pipes, geysers of raw sewage would shoot into the air.
In 1889, life took a turn for the better when Seattle burnt down. A young carpenter’s apprentice had let his glue boil over, starting a fire that tore through the mostly wooden buildings downtown, destroying 33 square blocks. Miraculously, no one died.
When the city was rebuilt, concrete retaining walls were constructed on either side of the old streets and the space in-between was filled and paved over, elevating the sidewalk by as much as 10 metres. Meanwhile, shops and hotels were rebuilt on the muddy ruins, initially trading on what would become the basement level when business moved upstairs to the new ground floor. In 1907, the city condemned the underground for fear of bubonic plague, and the entombed streets lay derelict and largely forgotten by all but a few Prohibition bootleggers until Speidel made his way down. “It was like opening a time capsule,” says Angie. “Look around and this is what he found.”
Only a fraction of the underground has been reopened to the public, and it’s hard to get your bearings until you look up and see people walking over glass skylights set into the sidewalk, unaware of the subterranean world beneath their feet.
Virtually untouched for more than a century, the tunnels aren’t particularly picturesque but once bustled with life. Below 1st Ave, we pass the boarded-up windows of what used to be the Northern Hotel. An old bank building stands on one corner, near the remnants of a teller’s cage. (“An Eftpos with a person in it,” adds Angie, helpfully). During the Klondike goldrush, the bank was so overwhelmed with deposits that an adjacent sidewalk space was used as a vault. Some poor teller named Edward was shot in the guts by robbers and took two days to die – but when someone lets out a scream, it’s not his ghost they’ve seen but a rat.
One of the few known photographs of Lou Graham is on display in a small gift shop at the end of the tour. Elegantly dressed, she’s seated in the parlour with four of her most requested sewing circle members: three seamstresses and one “tailor” – wearing a black dress. “It may surprise you,” says Angie. “It reminds me of how little we change.”
Graham died in 1903 of syphilis – for the want of a “thimble”, you might say. There are conflicting accounts, but Speidel claims her entire estate, worth the equivalent of $US6 million today, was gifted to schools in the Seattle district: the largest such bequest until it was surpassed only a few years ago by another local entrepreneur, Bill Gates.
“Madame Lou Graham helped build our city into what you see around you today,” says Angie. “Henry Yesler literally bankrupted us and stole the identity of a 12-year-old girl. Only one of these people have a road named after them. Isn’t that how history works...”
Today, the Pioneer Square neighbourhood has an artsy vibe, with galleries and coffee shops, but the leafy central plaza has a menacing edge, especially at night. Despite its best intentions, Seattle has the third-largest homeless population in the United States, behind New York City and Los Angeles, and I’m shocked by the number of people wandering the streets, holding loud, manic conversations with someone I can’t see.
There’s a food bank and support services for the homeless downtown at Pike Place Market, a block from the waterfront, where local farmers and craft artisans sell everything from glass drinking straws to cigar-box guitars. The weekend crowds have money to spend, and the line of customers queuing outside Beecher’s Handmade Cheese spirals right round the block.
It’s early summer and the place hums with a good-natured kind of hustle. “I got real, live peaches!” a fruitseller calls out. “Wanna try one?” A Ray Charles lookalike in a cap and dark glasses sits on an upturned plastic bucket, shaking a cup. “Hey, one penny. Can you spare one penny? How about it?”
Nearby, a sign-spinner works the street, expertly flicking and twirling a banner for some high-rise hotel or bar, but I can’t make out the details. A guy standing next to me at the intersection watches the show while we wait for the lights to change. “Everyone’s got a trick here,” he says. Then the signal turns green and we cross.