The Not-So Novel Underground

These "underground cities", as they are sometimes called, are actually quite common. Urban areas that suffered from frequent fires, mudslides and flooding quickly learned the benefit of "heading for higher ground". Rather than relocating and starting over, it usually made more sense to build a city up higher, leaving a web of sub-basement levels and underground foundation corridors. In some cases, systems of tunnels were developed for utilities and transporation, then later abandoned. Other tunnels have a darker past, consisting of human trafficking, red light districts and prohibition. Although it is usually quite complicated and expensive, opening some of these underground areas to the public isn't an earth-shattering idea. Cities across the globe have offered outsiders a chance to explore their subterranean secrets with great success and profit for years. Here are some noteworthy examples...

Catacombs of Paris, France

The Paris Catacombs were the first urban underground tunnels that I had heard of. They're also the creepiest, as these limestone quarries were built hundreds of years ago by the Romans and converted into mass burial tunnels by French authorities in the late 18th century. Although guided tours are limited to an area below the 14th arrondissement, the Underground Paris tunnels are believed to stretch over 180 miles. It is illegal to explore the unauthorized areas without an official city guide, but the tunnels are so vast and there are so many entry points that illegal entry is quite common. So common, in fact, that they have a special French police force known as the cataflics to patrol them.

Pioneer Square in Seattle

Seattle's underground history is probably the most similar to our own. Like Eureka Springs, the streets serving the town's original ground floors were elevated in the late 1800's as a response to frequent flooding. This left the original ground floors facing a concrete wall, and pedestrians utilized ladders to move from the heightened street to the sidewalks below. The city eventually covered the old sidewalks and businesses were forced to embellish new storefront facades on the now ground-level second floor. Like Eureka Springs, the new upper level sidewalks were often embedded with glass blocks to shed light on the old sidewalks below.

The old passageways were eventually condemned by the city for fear of epidemics and plague, and the "underground" remained silent and mostly unused until the 1960's when a private tour operator named Bill Speidel negotiated access with building owners and began to operate his Underground Tour through Seattle's Pioneer Square. These tours still run today, taking visitors through three blocks of Seattle's notorious underground.

Shanghai Tunnels in Portland

Beneath Old Chinatown in Portland, Oregon are the Shanghai Tunnels, a network of basement passageways that connect various historic businesses with the nearby docks of the Willamette River. Also known as the Portland Underground, these tunnels were used to transport goods and unwilling human passengers to a life of maritime slavery and/or servitude, hence the development of the kidnapping term "shanghai". During prohibition, the Portland Underground also hosted several speakeasy saloons and illegal bars. Tours are available from the Cascade Geographic Society.

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Pendleton Underground Tours

In Eastern Oregon, the town of Pendleton (population ~16,000) offers underground tours of their historic red light district. Like Portland, the tunnels were built as service tunnels for the businesses operating above, but also served as thoroughfares for prostitution and illegal gambling. Guided tours are available and visitors can stay at the restored Working Girls Hotel, a historic brothel house.

Underground Atlanta

Like the Eureka Springs Underground and Seattle's Pioneer Square, Underground Atlanta was inadvertently created by raised thoroughfares that turned original first floor facades into basement levels. These old store fronts were built in the mid-to-late 19th century, but by 1910 railroad bridges were constructed in front of these establishments, casting them in shadow and disuse. These viaducts were eventually reconstructed in concrete and the building owners moved their store fronts to the second level. The underground areas were used as basement storage areas and occasionally for questionable enterprises like gambling and illegal drinking.

Atlanta's "underground city" was rediscovered in the late 1960's and embellished with popular restaurants, nightclubs and bars. These establishments were very successful at first, but declined over the course of a decade due to nearby reconstruction and rampant crime, and the underground was abandoned by the early 1980's. Then in 1989, twenty years after the original underground revival, the area was reopened for business as a renovated underground shopping mall. Since that time, Underground Atlanta has had its share of ups and downs, although recent advertising campaigns appear to have stabilized the profitability of the underground as a hip urban tourist destination.

Old Edinburgh Underground

Medieval tunnels and graveyards set the stage for ghostly experiences and the dark retelling of the city's historical darkside at the Auld Reekie and City of the Dead tours in Edinburgh, Scotland. Constructed early in the 18th century, the tunnels now include a museum of torture, costumed tourguides, isolation crypts that once confined the homeless and plague-ridden, haunted pubs and a genuine pagan witches' temple. The infamous South Bridge Poltergeist area is included in the Auld Reekie tour, a late 1700's bridge that was closed off by encroaching buildings, creating underground vaults. The vaults were used for storage, brothels and the occasional Satanic ceremony until they were closed in the 19th century due to flooding problems. The military reportedly reinforced and utilized some of the tunnels during World War II.

Today, various underground Edinburgh tours are offered several times throughout the day (and night!). Often advertised as the most haunted underground tours in the world, there are frequent reports of guests being mysteriously scratched, bumped and bitten.

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