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Writings of a Wanderer: Underground in Seattle

Musty air filled my lungs as I walked down a narrow wooden staircase. Dim lighting revealed cobwebs as thick as cotton and discarded scrap metal rusted orange. The guide, a middle-aged woman in a lacy blue dress, waited on the sunken cement floor below. Smiling, she welcomed visitors to Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, a historical tour beneath Seattle’s streets and sidewalks.

The tour started above ground, in a restored 1890s saloon, replete with antique chandeliers and an ornately carved wooden bar, located in Seattle’s birthplace, Pioneer Square. Several tour guides corralled about 150 people toward benches lining the spacious saloon. One of the guides, Rose, engaged the audience by asking questions, poking fun at Tacoma, and sharing her knowledge of Seattle’s history.

The Underground Tour is a byproduct of Bill Speidel’s campaign to save Pioneer Square in the 1950s and ’60s. Speidel, a local historian, press agent and former newspaper man, didn’t want to see Seattle bulldoze its oldest downtown neighborhood because it had fallen into a state of disrepair, the tour guide explained. Speidel collected signatures, wrote letters to the newspaper, and started a citizen campaign to save Pioneer Square.

Along the way, Speidel unearthed rumors about Seattle’s subterranean sidewalks and storefronts, which were buried when the city rebuilt on top of itself after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. The efforts of Speidel and several visionaries, including Doc Maynard, eventually paid off. And now, 45 years later, the Underground Tour is still going strong.

After the 20-minute introduction, which included the side-splitting story of the invention of the toilet and Seattle’s sewer system, the tourists were divided into smaller groups and departed the saloon. Our guide, Gael, led us through several underground passageways beneath Pioneer Square.

While sharing stories, she combined humor with history, keeping even the youngest tourists entertained. Our guide poked fun at Seattle’s “seamstress” industry while sharing the history of Madame Lou Graham, a woman who ran a brothel in Pioneer Square and whose $250,000 fortune was given to the King County school system upon her death in 1903.

The guide covered everything, from the University of Washington’s beginnings to the Klondike Gold Rush to the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. A grease fire ignited in a carpentry shop destroyed 25 blocks of the city, she said.

Seattle had been founded on soggy tide flats, so when it came time to rebuild after the fire, the city decided to raise the buildings above the mud. New buildings were at least three stories high.

Builders erected eight-foot-high retaining walls on each side of the streets, creating moats around the buildings. Workers demolished the area’s inland cliff with water, and filled in the space between buildings, creating a grade. The builders then made the previous second floors into the ground floor and the previous ground floors into basements.

Sidewalks eventually bridged the gap between the new streets and the second story of buildings, creating tunnels between the old and new sidewalks. These tunnels are now part of the Underground Tour.

The 90-minute tour ended in the Rogues Gallery, next to the saloon, which houses a museum dedicated to the history of Seattle as well as a gift shop packed with local memorabilia. Bill Speidel’s books, “Sons of the Profits” and “Doc Maynard: The Man Who Invented Seattle,” are available in the gift store.

By unearthing Seattle’s history and creating the Underground Tour, Speidel continues to remind residents and visitors that it’s okay to poke fun at history, as long as you don’t forget it.

Touring the Underground:

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is a guided, 90-minute walking tour beneath Seattle’s streets and sidewalks. For the tour schedule and ticket information, visit www.undergroundtour.com or call (206) 682-4646. The tours sell out often, so buying tickets in advance is recommended. Tickets cost $9-$18. The tours start at 608 First Ave., in Seattle’s Pioneer Square, between Cherry Street and Yesler Way. Check out a photo gallery of a recent tour.

Editor’s note: This a best-of column that was originally published September 13, 2010.

Journalist Lauren Brooks is a CSU, Chico alumna who graduated with a B.A. in journalism.

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