Underground tours of Pioneer Square begin in August 1964.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 3/12/2001
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3086
On August 3, 1964, an item in the The Seattle Times' Troubleshooter column spurs Bill Speidel (1912-1988) to organize public tours of Pioneer Square's "Underground Seattle." A popular author, Speidel is operating regular tours of the Square's subterranean sidewalks and basements by May 1965. The expeditions help to build support for the district's preservation four years later and remain a major tourist attraction today.

William Speidel was a Seattle native, journalist, and entrepreneur who relished the less-than-respecatable "underside" of local history. He began conducting informal tours of Pioneer Square in the early 1960s, focusing on the subterranean sidewalks and basement catacombs created when Seattle rebuilt from its Great Fire in 1889. As new buildings were being erected, city planners raised Pioneer Square streets by one to two full stories to address chronic drainage problems. Merchants on the original ground floors survived for a while with access via sidewalk stairways, but these were eventually sealed off. The "underground" was abandoned to transients and the occasional urban spelunker like Speidel.

Unearthing a Forgotten City

Public response to the tours' brief mention in The Seattle Times generated so much interest that Speidel formalized them in May 1965 and recruited student guides to lead middle-class visitors through the dank, dingy grottoes of "Skid Road." He dubbed the rediscovered realm "A forgotten city which lies beneath Seattle's modern streets," and established Doc Maynard's Saloon on Pioneer Place as the tour's terminal.

Speidel used the tour's popularity to promote preservation of his beloved Pioneer Square, joining with other activists such as gallery owner Richard White and architect Ralph Anderson. The 30-acre neighborhood was designated as a national historic district in 1969. A highly fantasized version of Underground Seattle provided the setting for a 1973 made-for-TV thriller, The Night Strangler, starring Darren McGavin.

Bill Speidel authored several popular histories and guides, including You Can't Eat Mt. Rainier, Sons of the Profits, The Wet Side of the Mountains, and Doc Maynard: The Man Who Invented Seattle. He and his wife Shirley also published the weekly Seattle Guide for several decades. The Underground Tour is now directed by their daughter, Sunny, who is also a noted Seattle artist.

Sources: Bill Speidel, "Seattle Underground," brochure (Seattle: Underground Tours, 1968); Underground Tour Website (www.undergroundtour.com).

Related Topics:   Curiosities | Seattle Neighborhoods

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