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Celebrating Seattle

BY LESLEY SAULS Modified: November 13, 2012 at 12:52 pm •  Published: November 13, 2012

Cheers! It has been 50 years since the Space Needle opened its doors for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, and I recently got to toast the anniversary with a gold-sprinkled cocktail as I rotated in the Needle's SkyCity restaurant.

The entire trip was a special celebration. I'd made a vow to myself that I would walk as frequently as possible in my Midwestern town and log the miles I had achieved. In six years, I had walked the 1,750 miles it would take to get from my house to the Space Needle, so I celebrated by actually going there and meeting an old friend for a weekend of fun that culminated in the magical clinking of commemorative glasses etched with the Needle's 50th-anniversary logo.

The signature Seattle drizzle and low clouds never appeared. It was perfect hiking weather, and Seattle teems with hiking trails. My friend knew of a great spot on Cougar Mountain where we tasted wild salmonberries, leaped over muddy puddles and climbed through a fallen tree's branches to stay on the path. In our circuitous winding, we got disoriented for a few minutes but were rescued by a kind hiker who had several trail maps in her pocket.

Having worked up an appetite, we went to find fresh seafood at Pike Place Market. Fluttering prayer flags and wafting incense drew me into one shop, and T-shirts, coffee mugs and snow globes lured me into another. Other boutiques offered many other treasures. In jostling crowds we admired fresh produce and watched the famous fish-throwing vendors on our way to a waterfront lunch. A local brew and a cup of chowder accompanied our view of the Great Wheel, Seattle's new Ferris wheel that sweeps visitors out beyond the end of Pier 57 and over Elliot Bay.

From our downtown hotel, many places were accessible by foot. As we walked to a movie theater in Westlake Shopping Center, Shuckers Oyster Bar lured us in for a glass of wine, a few oysters and a hospitable barman. A dozen oysters later we had solved the world's problems and still caught the opening scenes of our movie.

Very near Pike Place Market is the Seattle Art Museum, where life-size cars dangle from the ceiling and emit light tubes as if they are exploding over the main ticket desk. In a modern art room we found what looked like an oversized Japanese cloak made of thousands of replica dog tags. In another room we found a painting by Mark Rothko, and in the Galleries for Native Art of the Americas we stood under real totem poles. A touring exhibit of Aboriginal art provided a bright study in rustic pointillism.

Walking back from the museum, my friend mentioned the city beneath Seattle. I thought it was a joke. How could a city so close to the water have an underground city? We went directly to Pioneer Square and purchased tickets to a tour that literally went underground for an education.

It turns out Seattle's pioneers built the city on tidal flats that flooded on a daily basis. Shipping was an excellent means of transporting lumber, the city's first industrial product, to San Francisco, so the city needed to be close to Elliot Bay — despite the daily flooding. After a fire leveled the first buildings, wise planners deemed that stone structures would be safer, but that didn't solve the flooding issue.

Engineers suggested raising the city's elevation prior to rebuilding, but eager builders moved ahead with their projects. Once the new buildings were up, the city built retaining walls along every gutter and used fill to raise the streets as much as two stories high, leaving sidewalks and storefronts well below street level. Ladders had to be placed at intersections so walkers could climb up to cross the streets and climb back down to the businesses on the other side.

As time went by, these walkways became hazardous, with some community members even falling off the streets to their deaths. The city eventually covered them with concrete ceilings that became today's street-level sidewalks. Glass blocks imbedded in these ceilings lit the walkways below during the daytime, but at night they were dark and dangerous.

Ultimately the tunnels were condemned and forgotten until they were reopened for tours in 1965. Ours was peppered with humor, and our guide encouraged us to come back after dark for the adults-only version — called the Underworld Tour.

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