Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour | Seattle, Washington

Toilet in SeattleDirt! Corruption! Sewers! Scandal!

These are the words used to sell Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour in Seattle, Washington. Sidewalks beneath sidewalks. A city on a city, sort of …

Here’s the story:

Though this iconic Washington city is known today as the site of the Space Needle and home of the Seahawks, Seattle had a rough start. It was built on a mud flat. The sewer system had to be built on seven-foot stilts, and needless to say, the daily high tide was also a period of incredible sewage blockage and backup. The rain was so intense there were giant chuck holes in the roads—a child even drowned in one—and the city was frequently underwater.

In 1889, a devastating fire destroyed a good portion of the city, which was a mixed blessing. No one likes a city-wide fire, but it did give Seattle the chance to rebuild the city properly, which it did by filling in the land and lifting it up to a more livable distance above sea level. Many businesses couldn’t wait until the city was rebuilt, however, so they reopened their stores in their original locations while the city raised the roads with retaining walls. When the roads were done, Seattle’s sidewalks were added at road level, thus burying a whole layer of the city underground, which was abandoned altogether in 1907 when rats and disease became rampant. Which takes us to …

Today:

Visitors to Seattle are invited to learn about the history and mystery of the city with a tour of some of the abandoned underground areas. The tour starts in a large saloon with hanging chandeliers, an old bar counter and pictures of some of the notable historic folks hanging on the walls. A 20-minute introduction is given by one of the tour guides (basically a longer and funnier version of what I noted above), then groups are led down into the bowels of the city.

012110 - Sam'sOnce underground, tour guides paint a more detailed picture of the characters and culture that existed in Seattle at the advent of the 20th century. The catacombs are dusty and dirty. The ground is uneven and smells like its been locked up for a hundred years (which it has). And throughout the tour there are black-and-white photographs depicting the way the city used to look, which provides an interesting perspective and good context for what you’re looking at. The ground floors of the buildings look like any other old brick buildings, the occasional broken sign or old doorknob still hanging around, cobwebs hanging from the rafters, waiting for someone to come along and bring the place back to life. I loved hanging back from the group and running my hands along the cold brick walls, trying to imagine the life that once existed in these buildings.

The tour is billed as a “hilarious historic tour beneath Seattle’s sidewalks,” and the guides definitely put a few laughs into their shtick about Seattle’s past, but I don’t think the hype is necessary. The city has an interesting history, to be sure, and the lure of unknown underground walkways is more than enough to pique visitors’ interest. There is a story about a teller who was shot and killed in the 1890s, and today supposedly haunts the sidewalk along the tour route. And then there is Occidental Street, where drinking and gambling were so prevalent that a sin tax was actually mandated. The tour wanders past old speakeasies and saloons. All the while, a steady sound of car horns, footsteps and bus engines kicking into gear reminds you that present-day Seattle is alive and breathing right above you.

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour lasts about 90 minutes, which includes the 20-minute introduction. I toured during the holiday season, during which extra tours were added. Even so, I thought the groups were way too large (40 people to a group, and three groups per hour). With a group that size, it would have been nice if the guides had been wearing mikes to help amplify their voices. Because they’re talking in crowded underground spaces, in alleyways and right next to busy roads, it was frequently difficult to hear our tour guide.

012110 - HallwayIf you go:

I would recommend planning ahead and either arriving at the tour early or buying your tickets online, as tours fill up quickly. There is a cafe in the building where you pay for the tour, which offers a selection of small meals, snacks and beverages, which is convenient if you do arrive early. Use the bathroom before you leave for the tour as there are no (usable) facilities on the walk. Dress according to the temperature outside, as the underground tour is not heated or air conditioned. Finally, wear good shoes and clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. The ground is uneven, and the surroundings haven’t been dusted in more than 100 years.

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour (check online for hours of operation and ticket prices) | 608 1st Avenue, Seattle, Washington | 206.682.4646

My tour of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour was comped by the company, but the opinions contained in this piece are my own.

 

16 Responses to “Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour | Seattle, Washington”

  1. Megan Hill

    I thought the tour had a little too much cheese, too, so I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one who thinks that!
    I also expected the underground rooms to be less empty than they were. The pictures helped, but I guess I expected more life than the dusty tunnels provided.

    Reply
  2. Louise

    Hey Joanna what a coincidence to be reading this only five days after we took the same tour! We were visiting friends who live there, one of whom saw it when she was a kid, but the other is a Seattle native who had never done the tour. I thought it was pretty well done, and I enjoyed the corny jokes, although I agree that the history is pretty bizarre even without any embellishments.

    Reply
  3. James NomadRip

    We did this in October. It was a great time, and very interesting. The lady in the beginning asked if there was anyone from out of town. A couple raised their hands and said they were from Turkey. The lady sarcastically responded with, “well, I hope you enjoy our ancient 100 year-old history.” It was a good time.

    Reply
  4. jessiev

    this looks fantastic!! my brother (who lives in seattle) took our mom on it and they loved it!

    Reply
  5. Jennifer

    What a lot of fun. It’s so much more interesting to see details of a place that the junket types don’t get a glimpse of. I’ll try to check it out next time I’m in Seattle – thanks!

    Reply
  6. Carina

    Hey Joanna. I was JUST on this tour last weekend and was planning on writing a post about it this week :). I’ll still write it, but I’ll link over to yours. Stay tuned for a bit of a harsher review.

    Reply
  7. Aly

    I had completely forgotten about taking this tour as a kid when my family lived in Seattle! It’s been about ten years since then but it seems from your article that they haven’t changed since then. Specially the jokes 🙂

    Reply
  8. Alouise

    I went to Seattle a few years ago and loved it. This was one of the things I wanted to do, but never had time for. Thanks for the tips, I’ll have to do it next time I’m there.

    Reply
  9. joshywashington

    I live above the underground…and have actually snuck into the catacombs that tourists ply during the day! Let me tell you, guiding your own underground tour is far more exciting and far creepier!

    As a local I still love the Under ground tour, it’s loads of fun!

    Reply
  10. Jenna Vandenberg

    The Underground tour isn’t nearly as cheesy as “Ride the Duck,” wherein tourists are given plastic duck whistles!

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      There’s definitely some tongue-in-cheek humor, but it’s definitely not as cheesy as some activities!

      Reply
  11. Diane Schade

    Sarah and I loved the tour we were there on business in April
    I would recomend it.

    Reply
  12. sassydlynn

    So, my husband and I just wasted $50 on one of the lamest nightime tours ever. The guy was not even funny with his corny jokes and trying to be politically correct made his spill even lamer. If you’re considering taking this tour, for it is very interesting, take the day time tour and get a much better tour, different storyline, and for what it is realy worth, $16.Skip the drink and go to a real bar and party there saving yourself almost $20.

    Reply
    • JoAnna

      Thank you for your feedback. It’s good to hear from someone else who has participated in one of these tours. I’m a big believer that the tour guide can make or break an experience like this, so I definitely appreciate you sharing your insight.

      Reply

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