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Seattle’s Underground Toilet History

FLUSH’s Founder visited Seattle, Washington, for a work event! Through a few underground tours, we got the download on Seattle’s early history and how tightly it linked with sanitation.

A toilet behind a window in an underground abandoned saloon
A bathroom in a buried saloon (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Seattle’s written history started in 1851 when a few white settlers received land from the US Government to build out towns in the west. Back then, Seattle was a steeply sloped, swampy area with daily tidal waves on Puget Sound. When white settlers started to try building homes and facilities in the area, things got muddy pretty quickly.

This blog will briefly share some of that history.

The First Toilet Problems

For the first 40 years of Seattle’s settlement, people used wooden outhouses outside to relieve themselves, hoping that gravity would move poo down the slopes and into the bay. Because of the tides of Elliot Bay, what settlers had hoped would remove their sewage to Puget Sound would come back twice daily, sometimes flowing over privy holes. The streets were also muddy and unpleasant to step on…and smell. It was so waterlogged that a child in 1888 even drowned in a sinkhole in the area.

An old photo poking fun at the muddy Seattle streets (Credit: University of Washington)

In 1881, Seattle became one of the first cities in the US to receive many flush toilets, proudly ordering a bulk amount of Crapper Toilets, thinking it would help the toilet their problems with flushing water to push things along. Since the flush toilets needed a central sewer system to make them work, the community quickly built a large wooden log to direct their toilet waste down the hill and toward the bay.

A bathroom and an old toilet in the abandoned underground. (Credit: FLUSH/K Worsham)

Unfortunately, this only worsened conditions, as the sewage would spill back into their homes during high tides. Sometimes, the tidal waves would accelerate in the pipes, so people would have “sewage geysers” around four feet or higher showering their bathroom after a flush.

We couldn’t have made this up.

Sewage Waves

In 1889, Seattle experienced a large fire that razed much of its wooden buildings. Once the fire stopped, the city people decided it was a good opportunity to improve its infrastructure and altitudinal differences to make it more livable. Happily, the Klondike gold rush was driving business, and the city had a bounty…of gold diggers needing supplies!

Within the next decade, the city regraded its streets to be less steep, lifting and lowering to make them more level, raising the streets near the water by several yards. However, the city didn’t bother lifting sidewalks for a while; instead, people had to use ladders to get to shops and back to the road. Sometimes, wagons and buggies overhead would drop things onto passers-by on the sidewalk. The sidewalks also struggled with drainage issues, making the underground sidewalks smelly, dirty, and unsavory. Don’t worry – they lifted the sidewalks, too, eventually.

A rendering of the lifted streets with the underground sidewalks (Credit:FLUSH/K Worsham)

Fortunately, they also found better ways to stop the town from getting hit with sewage waves. Reginald Thomson built the first planned sewer system in Seattle that launched in 1918. The new sewer lines led to West Point Bay, where the city opened its first wastewater treatment plant in the 1960s. The city also used the underground tunnels to make plumbing systems for older buildings rather than rebuilding.

While building the sewers, a company also started in 1892 to collect and remove waste from homes with horse-drawn wagons and barged sewage into the sea miles off the coast. Records show accounts of “night soil” taken to the waterfront and dumped into the bay while the sewers were being built. The business district also had a constant slow fire to burn off accumulated trash – including dead animals. Fun fact - until 1930, horse manure remained a large portion of waste managed in the city!

Unfortunately, Seattle wasn’t able to skirt a health crisis during the times before the sewer came online. Their first bubonic plague outbreak happened in 1907. By the 1940s, nearly all residents of Seattle had at least one flushing toilet, and some even had bathrooms with indoor plumbing. By the mid-1950s, Seattle released over 40 million gallons of sewage to an outfall!

City Comfort Stations

Part of the tour of Seattle’s underground also mentioned the underground public comfort station built in 1909 near Pioneer Place. The toilets were segregated by sex under a beautiful pergola, and the inside of the bathrooms were supposed to have been spectacular. The best part? They incorporated the toilets’ ventilation system through the pergola’s decorative pillars! With a building cost of $24,506, these toilets were flushed thousands of times a day; an article in 1910 even called it “one of Seattle’s best advertisements”! Unfortunately, the comfort station closed around World War 2, likely when a strong earthquake hit the city in 1946.

An image of the pergola and a new business's women's toilet

near the original public toilets (Credit:FLUSH/K Worsham)

Now, public toilets are hard to come by in Seattle. A recent local article stated that you could ride 45 minutes throughout the city’s rail system without seeing a public toilet. With the growing houselessness population in the Pacific Northwest, this means that many people have no safe place to relieve themselves in the city.

Entering the Underground

We gleaned much of this information from taking a few underground tours in Seattle while we were there. Because of its geological challenges, several tourist options exist to explore a few of the original 32 underground blocks downtown. These tours started in the 1960s as a way to preserve the historical center of the city, and tour guides throw in funny dad jokes while they share the story that, in several ways, Seattle’s start was on the down-low…and kinda shitty.

A fun compilation of fun underground tour images to share (Credit:FLUSH/K Worsham)


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