Dive Into Seattle History at the Underground Tour

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I’m not much of a history buff, but I do like to learn about the stories behind the places I visit. I’ve done this in South Africa, Paraguay, and even Indonesia. And I’ve certainly done it in Seattle. Even after living in Seattle for over thirteen years, I still love learning about Seattle history. That’s why, during our last week in Seattle, we decided to take the Underground Tour. 

Seattle history at the Underground Tour

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is located in the historic Pioneer Square District. This 75 minute walking tour takes you through Seattle history from the time of its establishment to the height of the Goldrush years. The tour literally dives you into the streets of Seattle to discover the stories that lay underneath.

A neon sign representing Seattle history
An iconic sign in Seattle’s Pioneer Square (July 2018)

Historic Pioneer Square

We took the tour on a Thursday evening, as people in the many offices of Pioneer Square were beginning their commute home. My husband’s cousin, Leila, is a guide on the Underground Tour. We requested that she specifically be our guide for this tour.

The tour begins at Doc Maynard’s Public House. On the day of our tour, we headed upstairs, where rows of chairs and benches are set up in front of a small stage. Behind the stage is a window overlooking Pioneer Square.

I love the streets and buildings of Pioneer Square. Even if you don’t take the Underground Tour, you can still see so much of Seattle history, just by walking through the streets of this neighborhood! Many of the buildings were built in the late 1800’s, after the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, when a fire from a glue pot in a carpentry shop ended up burning down 25 city blocks. The city rebuilt itself, with stone instead of wood, and many of those buildings have endured the test of time.

A back alley in Pioneer Square (July 2018)

The rebuilding of a city

Leila covered a lot of Seattle history during the introduction, sprinkling in some humor and commentary to make the story interesting. She described the ill-conceived decision by the city’s founders, the Denny Party, to establish a city on Elliott Bay, where high tides would flood the streets of Seattle twice a day.

When the city was rebuilt after the Great Fire, Leila explained, city leaders decided to build everything two stories higher than before (known in Seattle history as the Regrade), to prevent future flooding of the streets. Since the rebuilding of the city would take over ten years to complete, downtown businesses built their buildings with two entrances, one at the original level (so that people could still do business during the Regrade) and one two stories above, at the new Regrade level. And thus, the Seattle Underground was born.

A tour guide explains Seattle history
Leila explains the male to female ratio in Seattle at the time (July 2018)

A glimpse into the past

After the introduction, we were led down into the streets of the Underground, where parts of Seattle history had been preserved. It was like taking a glimpse into the past, during Seattle’s early years. We walked into a room of an old saloon, walked past old building facades, saw how Seattle’s sidewalks had been built overhead, and examined relics of the past laying around in the corners and nooks of the Undergound.

Bill Speidel, we learned, was a reporter who had learned about Seattle’s Underground during his reporting years. He eventually created the Underground Tour in 1965 as a byproduct of a campaign to preserve Seattle history, as many people at the time didn’t even know of the Underground’s existence. Speidel even wrote a book about Seattle history, called Sons of the Profit, which is still in print today.

An old bar at the Underground Tour (July 2018)

A city built on the backs of women

One of the most interesting tidbits of Seattle history that I learned from the tour is the influential role that women played in creating Seattle. At the time of the city’s creation, Seattle was a mainly male-dominated town. The Donation of Land Claim Act of 1850 encouraged men to settle in the Pacific Northwest (sadly, this act did not apply to women!) and many men came to Seattle as a result. The first census conducted in Seattle, Leila told us, showed a ratio of men to women at 50:1.

You can imagine what such a high ratio of men to women might lead to. As economic theory postulates, supply will eventually rise to meet demand. Many brothels popped up during that time, and the women who worked in those brothels made quite a considerable sum of money. Since brothels, and their associated activities were illegal, these women would claim to be “seamstresses” as a way to get around the law.

One such woman was Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben, known to the public as Madame Lou. She was a brothel owner whose business was so successful, she eventually began to expand into landownership and business loans. Though one of her lasting legacies was her contributions to education in Seattle, sadly, her story is missing from many of the books on Seattle history. It seems, history is still often his-story.

Old glass to provide light in Seattle’s Underground (July 2018)

A different perspective on Seattle history

The Underground Tour is by far one of my favorite tours in Seattle, not just because it’s quirky and fun, but because it provides visitors with a different perspective on Seattle history. When we come to a place, it’s not enough to just see the sights and check it off a list. It’s important to take some time and dig down into the roots of a city. In Seattle, those roots are literally underground.

Have you taken the Underground Tour? Tell me what you love best about Seattle history!

Disclosure: My family and I received complimentary admission to the Underground Tour. However, the opinions published in this post are completely my own.

Dive in Seattle history at the underground tour

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26 Responses

  1. Such a fun tour. We did it a few years ago and it was so interesting to learn about this little-known part of PNW history. You can only imagine how disgusting the city would have been at high tide… Thank goodness they raised it.

    Thanks for sharing. Keep travel blogging. Adventure is better shared with friends!

    1. Yes. I’m so thankful the fire forced the city to rebuild. That fire (and the gold rush) really kickstarted Seattle as a booming town!

  2. Oh Astrid, I’m so honored that you all spent one of your last days in town with me! I’m going to miss you soooo much! Thanks for taking the tour. While I’ll miss you guys for sure I’m truly looking forward to reading about all your adventures here! See you in a few years!

  3. Such a fun frolic tour. we have been planning to visit seattle for long now & may hit there soon. Thanks for this info. Keep up the good work.

  4. A 50:1 ratio of men to women!! That sounds…I don’t know….not good! From your description of the Underground Tour, I would definitely go. It sounds like a really interesting tour. Thanks for sharing.

  5. That part of the US is still high on my list. As soon as things change for the better, I would love to visit Washington State and Oregon.

  6. Seattle is a really interesting city. Pioneer Square is an awesome neighborhood to walk through and explore with the old buildings and signage. The tour must have been fun to learn more about it

    1. I love all the old buildings of Pioneer Square. It’s always been my favorite part of the city to walk through as well.

  7. I love history and this is fascinating. I had no idea about the two entrance levels to the buildings; what a pragmatic approach! Glad to hear some of the more unusual aspects of the tales of this city.

  8. It has been a while since I have been on the tour but I think my husband and I are going to do the boozy version for our one year wedding anniversary. He has never been and has only been living in Washington for just over 3 years so doing fun touristy things like this are really fun. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  9. I would love to take this unusual historical tour of Seattle. I was not knowing of such a difference of men is to women and it led to the birth of brothels.

  10. I love seeing old photographs of how cities and streets used to look. Sometimes you can see the resemblance to modern day, mostly in the buildings and architecture. But at other times, you would not know they are the same place. I think its very fascinating how a place changes over time.

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Hi, I'm Astrid

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I'm a travel-loving mom of three from Seattle. Join our adventures as we explore the Pacific Northwest and the world!

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