Historical Notes: A city built round lavatory bowls

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RARELY CAN a catastrophic fire have been as welcome as the one which engulfed downtown Seattle on 6 June 1889. Strangely, not a single person died in the conflagration, which was caused by an overturned pot of flaming glue. The glue was in a paint store, and the immediate reaction of the storeman - to throw a bucket of water over the adhesive, which caused the initial explosion - was, perhaps, foolhardy.

John Beck, the bucket-thrower, helped initiate the process of converting a pestilent, sewage-filled cesspit into the outdoor-loving, caffeine-fuelled, Frasier- obsessed Pacific-rim port of today.

Seattle had not been well sited. The original settlers in the 1850s positioned this would-be waterborne trading post adjacent to waters too shallow for shipping, so it was quickly shifted across the bay to its present site. However the new Seattle was soon thriving as a centre of timber and coal production but had problems of its own - the wooden buildings were sited on mudflats that were tidal in nature, and this played havoc with the primitive sewage system.

The only way a person could use the lavatory in the certainty that he or she would not get a free douche thrown in at high tide was to elevate the whole contraption, to the point where access was via ladders. Even then, the waste products refused to drain away properly.

It is no surprise that with a combination of mud and effluent sloshing around the sticky streets, typhoid, dysentery and tuberculosis were common. This was no place for gentlefolk, and such was the egregious state of downtown that the thoroughfare along which the logs from the sawmills were chuted - Skid Road - gave rise to the phrase Skid Row, a soon universal term for the seedy haunts of the down-and-out.

So, despite damage estimated at $15m, it was probably with some measure of relief that the good burghers of Seattle surveyed the smouldering remains of their city when, after 13 hours, the fire was finally brought under control, and immediately set about rebuilding. In brick. They also raised the town to the level of the lavatory bowls, by building the whole city one storey higher, on top of the charred remains.

This meant that for a good number of years the new roads were at a higher level than the shopfronts, which remained subterranean, accessed by ladders, but an increasing number of deaths caused by people falling down these unfenced holes where the pavement should be (17 died in all) meant that in the early part of this century the pre-fire city was sealed up once and for all.

Well, not quite. They didn't fill it in, but in most places simply covered it over. So the original framework of streets, the skeletal remains of shops, hotels, whore- houses and saloons remains down there. Some of the areas were used by boot- leggers during prohibition to store their booze, then, in the 1980s, the city's impressive bus tunnels with their grand, shiny, almost Stalinist stations, were built within the old remains, destroying some of the subterranean fabric.

However, even today you can take guided tours through a small part of this underground reminder of Seattle's somewhat more salacious past, from Doc Maynard's Public House on Pioneer Square. This is a Penny Dreadful experience, which tends to concentrate on the lives of the ladies who moved to Seattle to pleasure the loggers and miners and graphic descriptions of the plumbing problems caused by those high tides.

But despite the "Carry On Seattle" tone, it is worth the few dollars to take the tour, because as you slip beneath the pavements and leave the Starbucks and Timberland signs behind, and take those first few breaths of fetid air, you, too, might feel like Alice slipping down a very curious rabbit-hole indeed.

Rob Ryan is the author of `Underdogs' (Headline, pounds 9.99)