From Unlikely Episodes in Western History
Chapter 7, “Seattle’s Walled and Peculiar State.”
Work in progress, by Hale Quarter.
Unpaved, uneven trails pretended to be roads; they tied the nation’s coasts together like laces holding a boot, binding it with crossed strings and crossed fingers. And over the great river, across the plains, between the mountain passes the settlers pushed from east to west. They trickled over the Rockies in dribs and drabs, in wagons and coaches.
Or this is how it began.
In California there were nuggets the size of walnuts lying on the ground—or so it was said, and truth travels slowly when rumors have wings of gold. The trickle of humanity became a magnificent flow. The glittering western shores swarmed with prospectors, pushing their luck and pushing their pans into the gravelly streams, praying for fortunes.
In time, the earth grew crowded, and claims became more tenuous. Gold came out of the ground in dust so fine that the men who mined it could’ve inhaled it.
In 1850 another rumor, winged and sparkling, came swiftly from the north.
The Klondike, it said. Come and cut your way through the ice you find there. A fortune in gold awaits a determined enough man.
The tide shifted, and looked to the northern latitudes. This meant very, very good things for the last frontier stop before the Canadian border—a backwater mill town on Puget Sound called Seattle after the native chief of the local tribes. The muddy village became a tiny empire nearly overnight as explorers and prospectors paused to trade and stock up on supplies.
While American legislators argued over whether or not to buy the Alaska territory, Russia hedged its bets and considered its asking price. If the land really was pocked with gold deposits, the game would absolutely change; but even if a steady supply of gold could be located, could it be retrieved? A potential vein, spotted intermittently but mostly buried beneath a hundred feet of permanent ice, would make for an ideal testing ground.
In 1860, the Russians announced a contest, offering a 100,000 ruble prize to the inventor who could produce or propose a machine that could mine through ice in search of gold. And in this way, a scientific arms race began despite a budding civil war.
Across the Pacific Northwest big machines and small machines were tinkered into existence. They were tricky affairs designed to withstand bitter cold and tear through turf that was frozen diamond-hard. They were powered by steam and coal, and lubricated with special solutions that protected their mechanisms from the elements. These machines were made for men to drive like stagecoaches, or designed to dig on their own, controlled by clockwork and ingenious guiding devices.
But none of them were rugged enough to tackle the buried vein, and the Russians were on the verge of selling the land to America for a relative pittance… when a Seattle inventor approached them with plans for an amazing machine. It would be the greatest mining vehicle ever constructed: fifty feet long and fully mechanized, powered by compressed steam. It would boast three primary drilling and cutting heads, positioned at the front of the craft; and a system of spiral shoveling devices mounted along the back and sides would scoop the bored-through ice, rocks, or earth back out of the drilling path. Carefully weighted and meticulously reinforced, this machine could drill in an almost perfect vertical or horizontal path, depending on the whims of the man in the driver’s seat. Its precision would be unprecedented, and its power would set the standard for all such devices to come.
But it had not yet been built.
The inventor, a man named Leviticus Blue, convinced the Russians to advance him a sum great enough to gather the parts and fund the labor on Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. He asked for six months, and promised a public test display.
Leviticus Blue took his funding, returned to his home in Seattle, and began to build the remarkable machine in his basement. Piece by piece he assembled his contraption out of sight of his fellow townsmen; and night by night the sounds of mysterious tools and instruments startled the neighbors. But eventually, and well before the six-month deadline, the inventor declared his masterpiece “complete.”
What happened next remains a subject of much debate.
It might have been only an accident, after all—a terrible malfunction of equipment running amuck. It may have been nothing more than confusion, or bad timing, or improper calculations. Or then again, it might have been a calculated move after all, plotted to bring down a city’s core with unprecedented violence and mercenary greed.
What motivated Dr. Blue may never be known.
He was an avaricious man in his way, but no more so than most; and it’s possible that he wished only to take the money and run—with a bit of extra cash in his pocket to fund a larger escape. The inventor had recently married (as tongues did wag, his bride was some twenty-five years his junior), and there was much speculation that perhaps she had a hand in his decisions. Perhaps she urged his haste or she wished herself married to a richer husband. Or perhaps, as she long maintained, she knew nothing of anything.
What is certain is this: On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, something appalling burst out from the basement and tore a trail of havoc from the house on Denny Hill to the central business district, and then back home again.
Few witnesses agree, and fewer still were granted a glimpse of the Incredible Bone-shaking Drill Engine. Its course took it under the earth and down the hills, gouging up the land beneath the luxurious homes of wealthy mariners and shipping magnates, under the muddy flats where sat the sprawling sawmill, and down along the corridors, cellars, and storage rooms of general stores, ladies’ notions shops, apothecaries, and yes… the banks.
Four of the major ones, where they were lined up in a row—all four of those banks were ravaged as their foundations were ground into mulch. Their walls rattled, buckled, and fell. Their floors collapsed downward in a V-shaped implosion as their bottom buttresses dropped away, and then the space was partially filled with the toppling roofs. And these four banks held three million dollars or better between them, accumulated from the California miners cashing in their nuggets and heading north in search of more.
Scores of innocent bystanders were killed indoors as they stood in line for deposits or withdrawals. Many more died outside on the street, crushed by the leaning, trembling walls as they gave up their mortar and crashed heavily down.
Citizens clamored for safety, but where could it be found? The earth itself opened up and swallowed them, here and there where the Drill Engine’s tunnel was too shallow to maintain even the thinnest crust of land. The quaking, rolling street flung itself like a rug being flapped before beaten clean. It moved hard from side to side, and in waves. And wherever the machine had gone, there came the sounds of crumbling and boring from the underground passages left by its passing.
To call the scene a disaster does it a terrific disservice. The final death toll was never fully calculated, for heaven only knew how many bodies might lie wedged in the rubble. And alas, there was no time for excavation.
For after Dr. Blue lodged his machine back beneath his own home, and after the wails of the injured were tended, and the first of the angry questions were being shouted from the remaining rooftops, a second wave of horror would come to afflict the city. It was difficult for Seattle’s residents to conclude that this second wave was unrelated to the first wave, but the details of their suspicions have never been explained to anyone’s collective satisfaction.
Only the observable facts can be recorded now, and perhaps in time a future analyst may provide a better answer than can presently be guessed at.
This much is known: In the aftermath of the Drill Engine’s astonishing trail of destruction, a peculiar illness afflicted the reconstruction workers nearest the wreckage of the bank blocks. By all reports this illness was eventually traced to the Drill Engine tunnels, and to a gas which came from them. At first, this gas appeared odorless and colorless, but over time it built up to such an extent that it could be discerned by the human eye, if spied through a bit of polarized glass.
Through trial and error, a few particulars of the gas were determined. It was a thick, slow-moving substance that killed by contamination, and it could be generally halted or stilted by simple barriers. Temporary stopgap measures cropped up across the city as an evacuation was organized. Tents were disassembled and treated with pitch in order to form makeshift walls.
As these barriers failed one ring at a time, and as thousands more of the city’s inhabitants fell fatally ill, sterner measures were called for. Hasty plans were drawn up and enacted, and within one year from the incident with Dr. Blue’s Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine, the entire downtown area was surrounded by an immense brick, mortar, and stone wall.
The wall stands approximately two hundred feet high—depending on the city’s diverse geographic constraints—and it averages a width of fifteen to twenty feet. It wholly encircles the damaged blocks, containing an area of nearly two square miles. Truly, it is a marvel of engineering.
However, within this wall the city spoils, utterly dead except for the rats and crows that are rumored to be there. The gas which still seeps from the ground ruins everything it touches. What once was a bustling metropolis is now a ghost town, surrounded by the surviving and resettled population. These people are fugitives from their hometown, and although many of them relocated north to Vancouver, or south to Tacoma or Portland, a significant number have stayed close to the wall.
They live on the mudflats and up against the hills, in a sprawling nontown most often called the Outskirts; and there, they have begun their lives anew.