We often think of Seattle as a city at the forefront of progress, home to the headquarters of big names like Microsoft, Amazon, and Starbucks. Some may know Seattle for its eco-friendly reputation or the world-famous national beauty that surrounds its skyscrapers. Still others may conjure images of popular contemporary attractions like the Space Needle or Olympic National Park. These are all accurate depictions of Seattle, Washington, but many forget about Seattle’s unique history as a late 1800’s pioneer town.
When you think you’ve seen all there is of Seattle, think again. If you haven’t been on Bill Speidel’s Seattle Underground Tour, you’re missing out on a big chunk of Seattle history buried right beneath your feet.
What is the Seattle Underground Tour?
Bill Speidel’s Seattle Underground Tour is a network of underground passageways and basements in downtown Seattle, underneath the streets of the historical Pioneer Square. These passageways and basements were once the main streets and first-floor storefronts of late 19th century Seattle. Seattle Underground Tours are leisurely guided walking tours through three blocks of restored subterranean shops, starting with Doc Maynard’s Public House, a restored saloon.
A Snippet of History
At this point, you may be wondering how parts of Seattle ended up underground. The original town of Seattle, founded in the 1850’s, was developed at sea level and built in several places on filled-in tidelands. This being the case, the town often flooded, and the gravity-assisted flush toilets that funneled into Elliot Bay often reversed the direction of waste at high tide. Moreover, all of the town’s original buildings were made of wood. By the 1880’s, Seattle was a mess of “sawdust in the streets, buildings on stilts, and toilets turning into geysers on a daily basis.”
In an ironically fortunate turn of events, Seattle saw the perfect opportunity for remodeling in June of 1889 when a young carpenter’s apprentice accidently let his glue boil over onto wood chips, sparking the Great Seattle Fire. The fire destroyed about 25 blocks of wooden buildings in the heart of Seattle (the original Pioneer Square). At this time it was decided that all new construction would be done with brick and mortar and that the streets would be rebuilt one to two stories higher than the original streets.
However, building owners wanting to capitalize on the 1890s economic boom rebuilt their storefronts on the old low ground where they had been before—although these ground-level floors would soon be underground. When the streets were finally rebuilt at the new level, these former first-levels became basements. The basements and underground sidewalks were used for a while by merchants and customers, but eventually were shut down and left to deteriorate for fear of pneumonic plague in 1907.
It was not until 1965 when historian and local citizen Bill Speidel set out to save Pioneer Square and stumbled upon the long forgotten ruins of Seattle’s past. He began taking increasingly curious visitors on tours of the underground passageways. Over the years, the tour has become increasingly popular and the underground passageways have been renovated to be more appealing to tourists—you’ll even find an underground gift shop.
Seattle Underground Tour Details:
The Seattle Underground Tour departs from 608 First Ave, in Seattle’s Pioneer Square between Cherry Street and Yesler Way. The tour is offered year round, though hours change according to season. For more information on tickets and scheduling, visit Underground Tour.