On August 3, 1964, a short item in the The Seattle Times Troubleshooter column invites readers interested in tours of "the early-day Seattle store fronts and sidewalks ... still intact underground" in Pioneer Square to contact Seattle journalist and author Bill Speidel (1912-1988) ("Times Troubleshooter"). The overwhelming response spurs Speidel, who has occasionally conducted informal tours of the subterranean sidewalks and basements, to organize ongoing public tours of the Square's "Underground Seattle." Speidel will be operating a regular "Underground Tour" by May 1965. The tours will help build support for creation of the Pioneer Square Historic District four years later, and they remain a major Seattle tourist attraction in the twenty-first century.
William Speidel was a Seattle native, journalist, and entrepreneur who relished the less-than-respectable "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 after 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
Speidel thought that awareness of the historic ruins underlying the city might help generate support for restoring and preserving the then-deteriorating Pioneer Square neighborhood, and he managed to get several mentions of the forgotten underground in the local press. This led a reader identified only as "N. P." to write the Times Troubleshooter, asking "Are tours of this interesting area available to the general public?" ("Times Troubleshooter"). The Troubleshooter replied:
"Tours are not conducted on a regular basis, says William C. Speidel, who has served in the past as guide for some groups. Speidel says he hopes future tours can be planned and suggests that interested persons write to him ... so that they may be informed when a tour is offered" ("Times Troubleshooter").
Public response to this brief item generated so much interest that Speidel, who later reported receiving 300 letters and many phone calls in the two days following its publication, formalized his Underground Tour in May 1965. Speidel recruited student guides to lead visitors through the dank, dingy grottoes of Seattle's old "Skid Road" 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. Their daughter Sunny, a noted Seattle artist, took over operation of the Underground Tour following Bill Speidel's death.