Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Another Side To Seattle Is Underfoot

Growing up in Washington state, I never gave it much thought. But after moving to Los Angeles, the buried city under Seattle took on a different meaning. It's part of the city's rich and colorful history, something everyone there shares.

Under some parts of Seattle, there is still a sprawling network of underground passages and basements that originated with a tragic start. When a cabinetmaker kicked over a glue plot, he started small fire that would consume 30 city blocks.

Fires of this size weren't unusual in the 1800s, but the outcome of this one was very different. Every building after the 1889 fire was required to be built out of stone or brick. Every building was also built one or two stories higher than the original street.

The latter resolution was an effort to solve another problem. The city was growing, but it continually faced setbacks because it was founded on a mud flat. The retrograde aimed at solving other problems, anything and everything from flooding to backed up toilets.

Underground Seattle is both enchanting and spooky. 

After the fire, the rebuilding was something of a spectacle. The streets were lined with concrete walls, making steep alleyways where they didn't belong. Eventually, the city installed sluices (water channels) and covered up the alleys, creating a new street that was 12- and 30-feet higher.

During the transition, people would use ladders to climb from the old streets to the new streets as the once street level storefronts become basements. It must have been odd, especially as a few tried to remain open underground.

Eventually, the city condemned the Seattle Underground for fear of a plague outbreak, leaving most of it abandoned. The few pockets that stayed open attracted a seedy clientele — flophouses, gambling halls, opium dens, and speakeasies.

Even those were eventually forgotten, along with Pioneer Square. Most businesses wanted to move uptown after the Yukon Gold Rush and even the above ground Pioneer Square was falling apart.

All that changed when Bill Speidel took an interest. While some accounts say his story started in 1965, it began much earlier. In 1954, he researched all he could about the downtown area until stumbling across newspaper articles that the then-rumored "passageways beneath the city" were real.

Shortly after, he shared his rediscovery with the Seattle Times and a single newspaper story resulted in 300 letters and a flurry of phone calls. Some people would call Speidel almost daily, all inquiring about tours to the Seattle Underground. Except, there were no tours yet.

Speidel's efforts to save Pioneer Square (and Underground Seattle) took almost a decade. The first tours were offered in 1965, but it would take another 20 years to become an historic district.

The Seattle Underground Tour as it exists today.

Nowadays, the tour has become refined enough that a couple sections of Underground Seattle have been restored. Most notably, the tour begins in Doc Maynard’s Public House, a saloon that originally existed in 1890. The introduction is probably longer than it needs to be, but some of it is interesting, much like this clip from Weird US TV.

Afterward, guides lead guests to three different sections, which includes about a three-block walk through Pioneer Square. Not all of the tour is underground and it doesn't include every underground area. It does, however, end in what is called the Rogues Gallery, an underground gift shop.

Along with the Underground Seattle Tour, the operators have opened another section that focuses on the seediest areas. Called the Underworld Tour, it includes details of the infamous Red Light District as well as some of the long-forgotten opium dens and speakeasies that temporarily inhabited the city. The stories are colorful enough that the operators require all guests to be 21 years of age or older.

The man who started the Underground revival. 

Speidel was something of a character himself. After graduating from the University of Washington in 1936 with a degree in literature, he took a job as a reporter for the Seattle Times. In 1946, he quit the news business and opened a public relations firm instead.

In addition to working with his clients, Speidel became a lead activist in preserving Pioneer Square. The idea purportedly started with his wife. She suggested saving Pioneer Square as a means to help him earn some publicity. He decided to take it on, joking that he could do anything his wife said he could.

Underground Seattle Will Busy You At 6.1 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Bill Speidel's Underground Seattle is more often buried under the more visible attractions. With so many museums, parks, and a vibrant arts and music scene (including the addition of the dazzling Chihuly Garden and Glass), the hour and 20 minute tour still retains its charm as something unique despite its sometimes overt touristy and campy flavoring.

As with any off-the-beaten path experience, some people will love it and others will hate it. Unless you're traveling with people under 21, always opt for the Underworld version. That tour includes a drink and, depending on the guide you draw, you might need it. It also doesn't include everything. Little bits of the Underground are located all over Pioneer Square, including at the Alexis Hotel. For travel information and hotel bookings, start with the top travel deals at Expedia.com.
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