Northwest NEWS

August 5, 2002


Historic guided walking tour takes visitors 'down under'

by Deborah Stone
   Arts and Entertainment
   On a recent summer day, I decided to check out Bill Speidel's Underground Tour in Seattle's Pioneer Square.
   It had been on my "things to do" list since I moved to the Puget Sound area 16 years ago and I decided it was high time I checked it off!
   It would seem sensible to take part in this type of experience with a relative or friend visiting from out of town, but somehow each time I have had visitors, the tour slipped from my mind and continued to remain one of those elusive items on my list. I rationalized my decision to experience the tour without being accompanied by out-of-town guests by telling myself that although I have lived in the Seattle area for many years, I still think it's fun to be a tourist in one's own home territory.
   On a sunny weekday morning, I congregated with a group of tourists from various parts of the country and the world, at Doc Maynards Public House, a restored 1890s saloon, in Pioneer Square. Across the way, the Pergola was painstakingly being repaired and numerous curious eyes were taking in the scene.
   The tour filled Doc Maynards to capacity and our upbeat guide for the opening session greeted us with cracks about various parts of the country, lots of Tacoma jokes and then proceeded to regale us with humorous tales of Seattle's past, some of the city's colorful founders (Denny, Maynard, Yesler) and the challenges they had in putting Seattle on the map.
   The Underground Tour was created in 1965 by one of Seattle's genuine old-time characters, Bill Speidel. Once a reporter for the Seattle Times and columnist for the defunct Seattle Star, Speidel turned to the public relations business in 1946 and became an ardent preservationist in the 1950s and 60s.
   He was one of several visionaries who saved Pioneer Square by mounting a citizen campaign to persuade the city to designate this area as a historic district, thus sparing it from the wrecking ball.
   There had been many rumors floating around that the ruins of early Seattle lay underneath its modern-day streets in Pioneer Square, but most people didn't believe it at that time.
   Speidel, along with many others, spent days, weeks and months poking around the area and ultimately did find the remains of the city, which had been consumed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889.
   These were the remains of a town founded on soggy tide flats, whose streets would fill with mud deep enough to consume dogs and even small children, when it rained. At that time, the place was a mess with sawdust covering the streets (potholes were conveniently repaired with sawdust from Henry Yesler's steam-powered sawdust mill), buildings on stilts and massive sanitation problems.
   On a daily basis, when the tides came in, the toilets became geysers and the sewers flowed backwards! It was obvious that Seattle was in desperate need of urban renewal and with the fire of 1889, it got its chance.
   When the fire occurred (as a result of a carpenter's apprentice's negligence in allowing his glue to boil over onto a pile of wood chips) some 25 square blocks of wooden buildings in the heart of the city were destroyed.
   The powers-that-be of the city at that time made the decision that all new construction had to be of stone or brick masonry.
   They also opted to raise the city up from the muck in which its original streets lay by building tall retaining walls on either side of the old streets, filling in the space between the walls and paving over the fill to raise the streets.
   The new streets were now one story higher than the old sidewalks that ran alongside them. Buildings were constructed, without owners being aware that their first floors were soon to become basements.
   Eventually, sidewalks closed the gap between the new streets and the second stories of buildings, leaving hollow tunnels between the old and new sidewalks. These tunnels created the passageways of today's Underground.
   After the fire, the Yukon Gold Rush brought people and prosperity to Seattle, along with a variety of disreputable businesses. When it was all over with, the reputable businesses went uptown and the area earned a bad name.
   For nearly two-thirds of a century, Pioneer Square was left untouched.
   Then Speidel came into the picture and in 1970, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance naming 20 square blocks in Pioneer Square a Historic District, the city's first neighborhood to be listed as such in the National Register of Historic Places. After a half hour introduction into this history, our tour group was divided into three smaller groups, which were each taken by a guide to roam the subterranean passages that once were the main roads and first-floor storefronts of old downtown Seattle.
   We went to three different sections of the Underground, about three blocks total and learned of the various businesses that were once located in these areas.
   The passageways were clearly marked and there were remains of signs and other artifacts, as well as photos of old Seattle.
   At one point, through a skylight, you could see the sidewalks above you and watch people's feet walk by. It was an eerie, but fascinating feeling to walk through the dank tunnels, knowing that Seattle's pioneers once trod upon these passageways as they went about their business so many years ago.
   The tour ended at The Underground Tour Museum, where visitors could view additional artifacts from Seattle's early history and take a look at Rogue's Gallery, a display of portraits and descriptions of Seattle's more colorful characters.
   Coming up into the daylight after spending an hour "down below" felt good and I decided to stroll the "modern" streets of Pioneer Square to complete my excursion. I viewed the area differently after having had an insight into its history and struggles and realized that the tour helped give me a newfound appreciation of this special section of Seattle.
   Without Speidel's initiative, these streets would probably not be host to a wonderful assortment of art galleries, bookstores, specialty shops, restaurants and night clubs and it certainly wouldn't be the thriving, colorful place it is today.
   For more information about Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, call (206) 682-4646. Tickets are on a first-come, first-serve basis and reservations are not accepted.