Prior to traveling to Seattle, I did some research to make the most of my non-work free time. I read out about an underground tour near Pioneer Square. The website made it sound lurid and sensationalist. I love lurid and sensationalist! Instead, I found myself learning about Seattle’s early history in a way that harkened back to one of my history professors. Wait, wait, hear me out. In college I had this great history professor who knew the best way to get us to learn was to make us laugh. I still remember the lecture about early explorers starving while crossing the Pacific. In fact that might be the only lecture I remember from college, because the lecture included the crucial question, “Why didn’t the fuckers fish?” (that verbatim question was also on the final). He taught fact and context deftly slipped into the stories and jokes and so does Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour.
The tour starts with a 10-15 minute introduction inside Doc Maynard’s Public House. Bill Speidel saw the area around Pioneer Square in decline and historic buildings being razed for parking lots and did something about it. His first tours not only educated people about the area and the richness of history and culture, but they also gave him access to a public who would help him preserve the area. He did indeed succeed in having the area named a historic district.
Chris was the tour guide for my group and he was fantastic. He took us in and out of buildings and the accessible sections of underground, telling the fascinating story of Seattle’s founding, the later fire, and the rebuilding of the city that led to the “underground.” Did you know that the term “skid row” refers to this section in Seattle? Logs were cut down on the hill and send sliding (skidding) down the steep grade to the waterfront. And as with all waterfronts, one finds the carnal triumvirate of booze, gambling, and whores. Hence, Skid Row’s awe-inspiring reputation now extends to cities without trees or hills and a hair metal band.
The tour starts in the shadow of Smith Tower, once the tallest building in Seattle. While that was interesting, what made my nerd-heart sing was learning that it was built by the man who founded the Smith-Premier Typewriter Company, which became the Smith-Corona Typewriter Company. I should have toured Smith Tower, but since I didn’t someone else should and tell me about it.
From there, we descended down just a flight of stairs to what was once the street level in Seattle. Seattle was founded at low tide, which was even more problematic than one might expect. Exploding toilets anyone? In 1889, a fire leveled 25 square blocks and gave Seattle the opportunity to rebuild. The city decided to re-grade the streets and build them up above the tidal flats, but the businesses in the area couldn’t wait for the city, so they went ahead and rebuilt. Once the streets were finished, the first floors were now basically underground.
After three subterranean spots, we wrapped up with a surprisingly respectful history lesson about a brothel owner, Madam Lou, who helped build the city. Not only that, she left her estate to the school system.
There is so much I am leaving out, so if you are in the area and have 75 minutes to learn while being entertained, you really should take the tour.
Bill Spiedel’s Underground Tour
Address: 608 First Ave., Seattle, WA 98104
Phone: (206) 682-4646
April – September: Daily, 9 am-7 pm
June – August: Daily on the hour 9am-7pm and these additional ½ hour times – 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, 3:30pm
October – March: Daily, 11 am-6 pm
Admission: $18 Adult (18-59 yrs), $15 Senior (60+ yrs), $15 Student (13-17 yrs or with valid college ID), $9 Child (7 –12 yrs)