Dirt! 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 …
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.
Once 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.
If 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.