The story of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour begins in 1954. It really is the story of how Pioneer Square was saved, because the Underground Tour was the unanticipated product of this effort. By that year, Pioneer Square had fallen into such a state of disrepair few recognized it as the city’s birthplace. It occurred to Bill Speidel’s wife, Shirley, that Bill, a publicist, could do some pro bono work for an idea that had come to interest them both. “Why don’t you get Pioneer Square restored?” she asked him.
“I can do anything Shirley makes up her mind I can do,” Bill Speidel later recalled. He set about learning all he could about Pioneer Square, and plotted to reverse decades of deterioration and neglect.
Seattleites knew so little hometown history that the existence of “passageways beneath the city” was a local rumor sensible people didn’t repeat.
“I poked around and said things to the newspapers like, ‘Behold!’ and ‘we must do something.’ They printed this stuff,” Speidel said, prompting a letter to The Seattle Times newspaper inquiring about rumors that the ruins of early Seattle lay underneath its modern-day streets in Pioneer Square. Were there tours of the passageways?
In one of its popular columns, the newspaper referred the inquiry to Speidel. “We got 300 letters and a flock of telephone calls in the next two days,” from people who had read the column and wanted to take a tour, Speidel said.
“Well, there I was with 300 people dying to take an underground tour and no underground tours to offer,” he said. “And they weren’t just 300 people who dashed off a letter and forgot about it. They were 300 people who tried to call me every day.” So overwhelming was the response, he said, “it was easier to find out whether there was a buried city—which I sincerely doubted—than to stay in the office and take all that abuse.”
At about the same time, Speidel was struck by a little controversy that had cropped up at City Hall. “The Seattle City Council had voted ‘tops’ for topless go-go dancers because 25 protest letters were sent in. “I thought, what if I could get 300 letters sent in to the City Council demanding an ordinance designating Pioneer Square an historical site? Visitors on the tour could sign petitions. That would stop the ball-and-chain guys from knocking down more landmarks like the great old Seattle Hotel,” at First Avenue and Yesler Way, replaced now by what is known around the neighborhood as, “The Sinking Ship Garage.”
Speidel ultimately did find the remains of the city consumed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, a town founded on mostly soggy tideflats whose streets would, whenever the rains came, bloat deep enough with mud to consume dogs and small children.
After the fire, which destroyed some 25 square blocks of mostly wooden buildings in the heart of Seattle, it was unanimously decided that all new construction must be of stone or brick masonry. The city also decided to rise up from the muck in which its original streets lay.
It was this decision that created the Underground: The city built retaining walls, eight feet or higher, on either side of the old streets, filled in the space between the walls, and paved over the fill to effectively raise the streets, making them one story higher than the old sidewalks that still ran alongside them.
Building owners, eager to capitalize on an 1890s economic boom, quickly rebuilt on the old, low, muddy ground where they had been before, unmindful of the fact that their first floor display windows and lobbies soon would become basements. Eventually, sidewalks bridged the gap between the new streets and the second story of buildings, leaving hollow tunnels (as high as 35 feet in some places) between the old and new sidewalks, and creating the passageways of today’s Underground.
Eight years after the fire, in 1897, the Yukon Gold Rush brought 100,000 adventurers through Seattle en route to Alaska. The resultant financial boom brought to Pioneer Square all manner of entrepreneurs, including barmen and gamblers, con men and madams. When the rush was over 10 years later, these slippery people stayed on and gave the area a bad name. Reputable businesses moved uptown, and Pioneer Square was quickly forgotten.
The city’s birthplace lay virtually undisturbed, like the ruins of Pompeii, for nearly two-thirds of a century, before it occurred to anyone that it might be a good idea to preserve it.
“I guess about 600 people in all helped us establish the fact of the buried city,” Speidel recalled. Meanwhile, Speidel fed each discovery to the newspapers.
Architectural flourish found in the Underground
“Well, the news media kept whooping it up and it got so letters were coming in from as far away as Cairo—Egypt, not Illinois. Even the City Council was impressed and took a tour of inspection. Not out of vulgar curiosity, mind you, but in the civic interest.
“I frankly told them they were the hunk of meat hanging in the tree that I was jumping for, and if 25 letters could kill off topless dancers, 300 could get the neighborhood designated an historic district. “They laughed and nodded and said pleasant things in unison.” But they didn’t exactly a-go-go.
“Then in May, 1965, when the Junior Chamber of Commerce held its ‘Know Your Seattle Day,’ they persuaded us to conduct tours for one day at a buck a head.”
When Bill and Shirley arrived to give the first public tour, Pioneer Place Park, “was packed with people holding dollar bills. We took 500 people on tours that day.”
The Speidels soon scheduled public tours: The Underground Tour finally was opened to the public. Soon after, the mayor was presented with 100,000 names on a petition, and in May, 1970, the Seattle City Council adopted an ordinance naming 20 square blocks in Pioneer Square an Historic District. Later, Pioneer Square became the city’s first neighborhood to be so listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Speidel always was sure who should get the credit: “A lot of other people worked making it possible, but all I can say is, thank God for the go-go girls!”
America in the 1950s was a land of contradictions, torn between the values that won World War II and futuristic visions of an ideal world. The downtown cores of many cities were in decay. Families moved to the suburbs in pastel-painted station wagons, and commuted to work and school in all sorts of futuristic Detroit dream machines with big fins. The automobile reigned supreme. Freeways were needed. And parking lots. Raze the old, start anew!
It was government sanctioned devastation, but the idea that you could bulldoze blight, start ever-so-fresh, and live happily, sanitarily ever after, had the same sort of post-war appeal that led to Formica dinette sets and polyester underwear.
At the same time, ironically, Congress enacted the National Historic Preservation Act, the very tool to reverse this trend. The Preservation Act and related ordinances at the state and local levels, were designed to preserve historic character and ensure sensitive restoration in old neighborhoods. At the time, building owners in Seattle’s old Pioneer Square district were loathe to put a dime into their holdings because the buildings adjacent theirs might never see improvement, or could be torn down without warning and turned into monstrous concrete parking garages by the Seattle Central Association, a sworn enemy of any and all historic preservation, and whose members’ vision, Speidel pointed out routinely, “extended not quite to the tips of their noses.”
A public relations campaign wasn’t about to change these guys’ views.
Designation of Pioneer Square as an Historic District, however, gave preservation the credibility it needed to capture the interest of bankers. Now, recalcitrant building owners began to listen.
The city kicked in funds for upgrading public right-of-ways and public spaces. The Feds came up with a nice little tax-credit program for historic buildings, and—along with adventuresome tenants such as artists, architects, gallery owners, nightclubs and the Underground Tour—the preservation of Pioneer Square was underway.
Today, Pioneer Square and the Pike Place Market, a few blocks north, are Seattle’s famous old downtown neighborhoods. It’s difficult now to imagine how underappreciated they once were, or how close we came to losing each of them.
Big trees everywhere. Plenty of underbrush. Cliffs and streams. And a whole lot of mud. That’s where the city of Seattle sat.
When the region’s early settlers looked around them, Puget Sound was the only horizontal surface they saw for miles, except for the tideflats, which you could smell long before you got close enough to see them, according to hop farmer Ezra Meeker, the area’s leading promoter at the time.
Even so, Arthur Denny, pioneer and the first Seattle developer, so to speak, was hooked on the deepwater harbor of Elliott Bay, which he’d been measuring for weeks with a horseshoe and bits of string. In the 1850s, a town needed a deep harbor to be on the freeway of maritime commerce.
Denny’s nemesis was one Dr. David Swinson Maynard. Where Denny was uptight and frugal, Maynard was free-wheeling and generous. Doc Maynard had a sense of humor, Denny didn’t.
These differences fueled a long-standing tension between the two. Yet, when the teetotalling Denny contracted malaria, it was Maynard who saved his life. But here’s how: with laudnaum—a concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. Furthermore, as Denny sunk under the auspicies of the medicine, Maynard opened one-on-one negotiations for property owned by Denny’s brother-in-law, which really wasn’t for sale. Well, Denny lived. And the real estate Maynard acquired, because he thought it would make a perfect downtown core, comprises a portion of today’s historic Pioneer Square.
One thing both men shared was the absolute determination to get a city going here. Twenty-five years after Doc got here, of the 208 businesses in Seattle’s first business directory, 196 of them were in Maynardtown, which in time became known as Pioneer Square.
A lot of what Arthur Denny did well was to get rich: History remembered him. Doc Maynard was forgotten. Until 1978, when Bill Speidel wrote, “Doc Maynard: The Man Who Invented Seattle.”
Where the land was not soggy from Puget Sound seepage, it was saturated by rainfall. After trees were cut and wagons passed through, it was one muddy mess. That’s when the filling began.
Early fill came from Henry Yesler’s steam-powered sawmill, which repaired potholes with what they had the most of: sawdust. Typically, Henry had discovered a method of looking like he promoted the good of the city while conveniently dumping his mill’s waste into nearby streets. Later we made him mayor.
Early entrepreneurs such as Yesler did lucrative business with folks in places such as San Francisco, who were willing to pay big for the trees we were trying to clear off our land. Ships coming to load timber had to carry weight, ballast, on the way up, usually in the form of rocks or land fill. Vessels were charged for dumping ballast off at the foot of Washington Street. So it was that the city got a little something on the side while helping early realtors make their own land from scratch. (And that, too, is how a good portion of Telegraph Hill, San Francisco, ended up in Puget Sound.)
The town’s proximity to sea level caused a new problem, literally, to rise up. In 1851, the same year the Denny party arrived, a fancy new device was introduced at the White House. It was called a “water closet,” and, boy, did these things take off in popularity. Even in the tiny frontier town of Seattle, indoor toilets became the rage.
By 1882, the city health commissioner, in his annual report, highlighted the fact that our sewers were operating at full blast, but it wasn’t a one-way river. Twice a day when the tides came in, the sewers flowed with it—backwards. Toilets became fountains!
With sawdust in the streets, buildings on stilts and toilets turning into geysers on a daily basis, Seattle was badly in need of remodeling.
The perfect chance came on June 6, 1889, when Jon Back, a young Swedish carpenter’s apprentice in a shop at Front and Madison streets, let his glue boil over onto wood chips. The fire he started tore through downtown, devouring wood-planked streets and ticky-tacky wood buildings.
Old photograph of the Great Seattle Fire
Firefighters were thwarted when the private water system—owned by three of the city’s leading citizens—proved to have not enough pressure to make the hoses effective. Desperate for another source of water, firefighters scrambled to the nearby shores of Puget Sound— and found the tide was out. The tide had them coming and going in those days.
By the time the fire was through, some 25 blocks of the central business district was gone.
Nevertheless, we think our fire was great. That’s why we call it The Great Seattle Fire.
“It was the biggest fire any city in the Pacific Northwest ever had,” Speidel would enthuse, “and the timing was right. “In a fire, timing is everything. If Tacoma (Seattle’s neighbor city just down the road) had had a fire, they’d probably have goofed up the timing. As it was, ours was just right. It was big news all over the world. It brought in about $120,000 in relief money and glory, because we were a brave little frontier town that had been wiped out and was manfully trying to rebuild itself.”
Along with financial relief, Seattle gained 17,000 new residents in her race with Tacoma for dominance of the region. In one fell swoop, the city rid itself of 30 years of ramshackle construction and poor planning—urban renewal before its time.
And, absolutely unintentionally, the “Underground” was created.