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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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