When you think of Seattle, iconic landmarks like Pike Place Market, Starbucks, and the Space Needle may spring to mind. However, a lesser-known marvel lies beneath the streets—Seattle’s historic underground city, a fascinating time capsule of archaeology and history. This unique subterranean world offers an intriguing glimpse into a pivotal chapter in Seattle’s past, making the Seattle underground tour an unmissable experience for those seeking something different.
Seattle Underground Tour: Hidden History at Your Feet
Today, you’ll find people enjoying chic bars and coffee shops in Romanesque Revival-style buildings that form Seattle’s Pioneer Square. Beneath the streets of this bustling district, however, you’ll find the remnants of the very first buildings in Seattle. Two hundred years ago, the lands belonged to the Coast Salish indigenous tribes, but then immigrants came to the area, building a settlement in 1851. This settlement thrived for 38 years, welcoming thousands of new occupants. However, one careless moment transformed the city forever.
A Forboding Reminder To Check the Stovetop
A catastrophic fire engulfed the city on June 6, 1889. The fire began at a woodwork shop. “The cabinet maker was heating a pot of glue. He forgot about it, and it boiled over and caught on fire,” says a tour guide from Bill Speidel’s Underground Tours. “He panicked and tried to throw water on what was essentially a grease fire. So it splattered onto a floor covered in sawdust soaked in turpentine.” The fire spread rapidly, engulfing three buildings before reaching a store that had recently acquired 550 whiskey barrels. Many stores stocked live ammunition and dynamite in those times, adding to the peril. While the blaze devastated 33 blocks of downtown Seattle, miraculously, no lives were lost.
A City Rising From the Ashes
When those early Seattleites rebuilt the city, they realized it should be elevated due to previous flooding problems. The city erected towering retaining walls alongside the streets, elevating them above the original sidewalks and inadvertently creating an underground world. The new buildings on street level were built in a Romanesque style, and the area became known as Pioneer Square. The underground stores continued to operate normally for the first few years after the fire.
To access them, customers had to climb ladders or stairs that were built to accommodate the strange basement level. In some cases, people went to the underground to cross the street. Eventually, however, these lower levels gradually became a refuge for the city’s less savory elements, including opium dens and illegal bars. By 1907, the city had sealed off many of these subterranean passages.
The Speidel’s Vision: Preserving Seattle’s Legacy
The existence of Seattle’s underground city faded into myth by the 1950s. Pioneer Square, rebuilt in the 1890s, faced demolition. However, Bill and Shirley Speidel, residents passionate about preserving this hidden historical treasure, spearheaded a campaign to save it. Bill discovered that the underground was, indeed, a reality and that people were so interested in what lay beneath that he was overwhelmed with people wanting to take a tour.
“Well, there I was with 300 people dying to take an underground tour and no underground tours to offer,” he recalled in an interview. On the first day of the tours in 1965, they took at least 500 people below the surface. Unfortunately, Bill died in 1988, but his tours are still going strong.
Tour Details and Tips
Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour starts at Doc Maynard’s Public House, a restored 1890s saloon, with a 20-minute introduction about the history of the area and the tour before heading into the underground areas. The tour guides like to bring a little comedy into the stories they tell of the pioneers in the area, and you’ll be covering some uneven terrain. Comfortable shoes are recommended, and those with mobility issues should note that the tour involves climbing several staircases.
One guest said, “The tour was worth every penny and took us underground to three different historical buildings, showing us what was left over in the late 1800s. It was an amazing experience to go underground and see everything frozen in time and what Seattle looked like back then.” The tour is enhanced with humor, history, and a sprinkling of the paranormal. The tours are just under $25 for adults.
Beneath the Streets—Another Portal to the Past
“We knew many additional underground spaces had been closed to public access for decades, and we wanted to reopen as many as possible,” says Sarah Morris of Beneath the Streets—a newer Seattle underground tour provider. The tour company has brought six new underground areas out of obscurity, sharing them with nearly one million guests since they started operation.
“We are mindful that this is Salish land, and we pay honor to that by talking about coastal Salish history on our tours,” says Ms Morris. “With our tours and the underground in Pioneer Square—the city’s birthplace—we are very aware of the cultural connection to the past and the present that the neighborhood and architecture provide.” The tours include three underground areas and are a chance to understand how these spaces were used and what secrets they might hold. Beneath the Streets also has tours about Queer History and the Red Light District in Seattle. All tours are under $27.
Pioneer Square Today
“Pioneer Square has always been home to the marginalized, the artists, the idealists, and those wanting to push the city forward,” says Ms Morris. “Yet, all seem to coexist in a small pocket of Seattle. Pioneer Square is the city’s heartbeat.” Pioneer Square still serves as a bustling hub where the past and present converge, offering a unique blend of historic architecture, contemporary galleries, and lively eateries.
Seattle’s underground tours offer a rare peek into a hidden chapter of the city’s history. From the origins of the underground following the Great Fire of 1889 to the preservation efforts of the Speidels, these tours offer a unique and fascinating experience. Whether you’re a history buff or simply looking for a different way to explore Seattle, the underground city is worth taking.