City’s unusual beginnings make it fun to explore



ted s. warren/the associated press


Loann Nguyen catches a salmon thrown in the salmon-tossing contest held in honour of the 100th anniversary of the Pike Place Market in Seattle.


There is a melding of the past, present and future in Seattle that makes it a tourism mecca for history buffs, music fans and sci-fi aficionados alike.

About 160 kilometres south of the Canada-U.S. border and three hours from Vancouver, Seattle is perhaps best known as the land of coffee houses, the birthplace of grunge music and Jimi Hendrix, and home of computer giant Microsoft in suburban Redmond.

But it’s Seattle’s somewhat unusual beginnings that make the city so much fun.

The lure of a deepwater port on Puget Sound tended to take away the good judgment of the first permanent white settlers, who began arriving in 1851.

The original town centre, known as Pioneer Square, was built mostly on filled-in tidelands and, as a consequence, often flooded, turning the streets into dangerous mud holes.

After the Great Seattle Fire destroyed 33 blocks in 1889, many businesses instantly rebuilt, while at the same time the city decided to reconstruct the downtown streets one or two storeys higher. The streets were built around the existing buildings, creating an underworld of tunnels and byways.

More than a century later, an underground tour attracts 250,000 tourists each year and gives a look at the world of early Seattle.

As you descend down a steep flight of stairs into the dark, a century-old sign promising “South End Steam Baths” lights the way. A tour guide describes how the tunnels turned into gambling and drug dens and were eventually condemned because of rats and disease.

“We tell the story about how Seattle was really founded and some of those stories that the history books want to erase,” said Greg Montgomery, spokesman for the Underground Tour. “The stories about the gambling and the seamstresses and the trades and everything that was going on — we think it’s important to keep that history alive.”

A census of the city in the early 1900s found that about 2,500 women who claimed to be seamstresses were actually working in the world’s oldest profession.

Pike Place Market continues to be the city’s most popular tourist destination. Overlooking Elliott Bay, it opened in 1907 and is one of the oldest continually operated farmers markets in North America. It remains a business centre for small-scale farmers, craftspeople and merchants and is packed most days.

The 1962 World’s Fair provided Seattle with its most recognizable landmark, the Space Needle, which almost half a century later still brings in 1.3 million visitors a year.

The Needle is synonymous with Seattle, having been featured in the logo of the television show Frasier and the background of Grey’s Anatomy. It’s also appeared in movies, including Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, as the lair of Dr. Evil.

“It’s an icon of Seattle. When you think of Seattle one of the first things that comes to a lot of people’s minds is the Space Needle,” said spokesman Dave Mandapat.

“We’ve done a lot to keep it fresh. It’s a 45-year-old attraction but we put $22-million investment in the last six or seven years. It certainly helps to establish it as an icon of the city.”

In keeping with the sci-fi theme of looking to the future, the Space Needle is next door to the Science Fiction Museum, which shares space with the Experience Music Project, a museum of music history.

The Science Fiction Museum is always packed, but both museums “inspire obsession equally in different ways,” said Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the sci-fi museum.

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