A Historical Walking Tour of Seattle: The Underground Tour

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For families visiting Seattle, Washington in the United States, taking a walking tour of Seattle is a must. The city is extremely walkable, especially in the South Lake Union and downtown areas. And if you’re interested in learning about the history of the city, taking a walking tour of Seattle through the Underground Tour is not to be missed.

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 we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to take the Underground Tour, during our last few days in Seattle in July 2018.

This post was updated on May 9, 2020.


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A view of downtown Seattle (February 2018)

Taking a walking tour of Seattle with the Underground Tour

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour is located in the historic Pioneer Square District. This 75 minute walking tour of Seattle takes you through the city’s 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.

Tours are conducted every day, on the hour from 9am to 7pm during the months of April through September. During the months of October through March, the hours are 10am to 6pm. Tickets for the tour cost $22 for adults, $20 for students between ages 13-17, and $10 for youths between ages 7-12. Children aged 6 and under are free, but keep in mind there is a lot of walking on the tour, as well as a lot of standing still and listening to the guide.

A neon sign and sign of Pioneer Square , examples of things visitors will see during a walking tour of Seattle
An iconic sign in Seattle’s Pioneer Square (July 2018)

Exploring historic Pioneer Square on our walking tour of Seattle

We take our tour on a Thursday evening, while people in the many offices of downtown Seattle were beginning their commute home. My husband’s cousin, Leila, who was a guide with the Underground Tour at the time, lead our tour group. (Note, Leila no longer works for the Underground Tour.)

The walking tour of Seattle begins at Doc Maynard’s Public House. On the day of our tour, we head 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 doing your own walking tour of Seattle through the streets of this neighborhood!

Many of the buildings of Pioneer Square were built in the late 1800’s. The city completely rebuilt itself 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. Rebuilding with stone instead of wood, many of the buildings in the city have endured the test of time.

An alley in Seattle's Pioneer Square neighborhood, where visitors can take a walking tour of Seattle
A back alley in Pioneer Square (July 2018)

The rebuilding of a city

During our walking tour of Seattle, Leila covers a lot of Seattle history, sprinkling in plenty of humor and commentary to make the story interesting. She describes 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 explains, city leaders decided to build everything two stories higher than before (known in Seattle history as the Regrade). This is 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.

Pictures of historical buildings of Seattle, WA, taken during a walking tour of Seattle
An old bar at the Underground Tour (July 2018)

A glimpse into the past

After the introduction, Leila leads us down into the streets of the Underground, where parts of Seattle history have been preserved. It’s like taking a glimpse into the past, during Seattle’s early years. We walk into a room of an old saloon, walk past old building facades, see how Seattle’s sidewalks had been built overhead, and examine relics of the past laying around in the corners and nooks of the Undergound.

Bill Speidel, we learn, 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. At the time, many people didn’t even know of the Underground’s existence. Speidel even wrote a book about Seattle history, called Sons of the Profits, which is still in print today.

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

A city built on the backs of women

One of the most interesting tidbits of Seattle history that I learn 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!). As a result, many men came to Seattle. The first census conducted in Seattle, Leila tells 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.

Leila explains the male to female ratio in Seattle at the time (July 2018)

A different perspective on Seattle history

The Underground Tour is by far one of my favorite tours in Seattle. It’s not just because it’s quirky and fun walking tour of Seattle. It’s also 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. If we want to practice responsible travel, 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 walking tour of Seattle with 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.

A Historical Walking Tour of Seattle: The Underground Tour | The Wandering Daughter

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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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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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