Seattle's catacombs tunnel into a fiery past

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      No matter how familiar you are with the streets of Seattle, you might not know what lies beneath them. Who could guess that under the historic cobblestones of Pioneer Square is another layer of history””complete with roadways? In fact, Seattle once thrived as much as 11 metres below where it does now.

      In the heart of Pioneer Square, Bill Speidel's Underground Tour uncovers Seattle's forgotten past. Charged with enthusiasm, wit, and historical anecdotes, it will tell and show you how the city's catacombs were created.

      Speidel was a writer for the Seattle Times in the 1960s when he began looking into rumours of subterranean roads that snaked beneath the city. He wrote about his initial findings in the newspaper. In 1964, a woman wrote in asking for more details. After investigating further, he replied through the paper and asked her to meet him the following Saturday at 3 p.m. at Pioneer Square for a tour of the area. At the appointed time, Speidel found his reader””and 300 other interested people. He accepted a $1 donation from each of them and proceeded with the very first tour of Seattle's underground.

      Guides at the Underground Tunnel are quick to credit Speidel with saving the historical district of Pioneer Square by sparking an interest in Seattle's oldest neighbourhood. Back then, Pioneer Square was a derelict area, on the verge of demolition. Inspired by Speidel's findings, a preservation movement ensued, resulting in the city eventually declaring 16 blocks in the area a protected historical site in May 1970.

      Today, Speidel's daughter, Sunny, manages operations of the tour, which has grown tremendously popular, drawing history buffs from around the world. According to the guides, about 90 percent of clients come from out of town; the remainder are locals forced along to entertain the guests.

      The tour lasts 90 minutes and is filled with anecdotal, if not revisionist, tidbits about Seattle's past. It's a story of greed, swindling, manipulation, disaster, and really poor urban planning. Wholly entertaining and filled with well-timed (and well-worn) jokes, it's designed to provoke giggles but not necessarily great debate.

      The tour starts in Doc Maynard's Public House, a restored 1890s saloon, now a pub and nightclub, named after pioneer and doctor David Swinson “Doc”  Maynard. The first half-hour is spent seated in the saloon listening to an overview of Seattle's history, including a tribute to its namesake, Doc Maynard. Dubbed by Speidel “the man who invented Seattle” , Doc Maynard settled in the village of Duwamps””Seattle's original name””in 1852. He became the village's first physician, merchant, First Nations agent, and justice of the peace. Later, at Maynard's persuasion, Duwamps was officially renamed Seattle in honour of Chief Seattle. Despite all this, Maynard was nearly forgotten.

      At the heart of the tour is a tale of the “Great Seattle Fire”  on June 6, 1898. Referred to as great because it not only burned down 33 city blocks in the central business district with great speed and force (although no one was hurt), but was also a blessing in disguise for the city. Up until then Seattle had been little more than a shabby, chaotic lumber town, but the fire created the opportunity to rebuild and learn from previous planning mistakes.

      For example, Seattle was originally built on water, not land. Early settlers filled in the bay around Duwamps Island, creating a peninsula. Little more than tideland, this foundation proved to be a soggy mess, often flooding streets and homes. Horse-drawn wagons either got stuck, with horses sinking into the mud, or created huge potholes. In the late 1800s, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a nine-year-old boy drowned in a pothole, 3.6 metres wide and 2.4 metres deep, along what is now First Avenue South.

      This sea-level city also led to complications for the plumbing system, which often backed up during incoming tides. This meant, twice a day, the gravity-assisted toilets were prone to what the guides wryly referred to as “exploding toilet syndrome”  as Elliot Bay reached high tide. An entire generation of residents grew up reading the daily tide table, printed on the front page of the newspaper to avoid geyserlike backsplash during high tide. Newcomers to Seattle, often caught off-guard, were dubbed “wet backs” .

      The reverse flush had residents scrambling, in all senses, for a solution. Soon, they elevated the toilets like thrones atop structures as high as eight metres. People used ladders to access the facilities””a small price to pay for guaranteed sanitation.

      After the Great Fire, city planners were adamant about rectifying the drainage problem and sought to raise the entire city up a storey or two. However, merchants, eager to reestablish their businesses as quickly as possible, simply built their stores in the old locations. Subsequently, storefronts and sidewalks remained at the original level while roads were rebuilt over 11 metres higher. Climbing up and down ladders became necessary just to cross the street. Accidents were rife, with pedestrians and even horses falling to their deaths simply by stumbling off the street.

      Eventually, the sidewalks were filled in and covered over, and storefronts were raised to match the new street level. Lower-level tenants continued to do business with stair accesses, but the underground became an enclave for speakeasies, gambling parlours, opium dens, and brothels.

      The guides DO a lot of nudge nudge, wink wink on these points. While never actually referring to the illegal trades, they make it obvious that the upright citizens of Seattle were not above welcoming and profiting from working women. Beyond cultivating the lumber and mining industries, Seattle officials made their money by inviting upward of 2,700 “seamstresses”  to the city who tended to the...sewing...needs of men. Officials went so far as to create a special district for them, complete with storefronts where these “seamstresses”  sat and displayed their fine mastery of the textile arts by modelling dainty garments. The city, ever concerned with monitoring the development of legitimate businesses, charged these seamstresses a “sewing machine tax” , which became a significant and steady source of revenue for Seattle.

      The actual tour through these passageways lasts an hour and involves a lot of climbing stairs and almost equal effort to imagine what life was like over a hundred years ago. Most of the interesting items retrieved from the underground have been removed to archives or museums. The structure remains, accessorized with photo galleries, boardwalks through the rubble, an original toilet complete with ladder, and””like all good tourist haunts””a requisite cruise ship–style photo op, against a backdrop of presumably very old wooden beams, near the end of the tour. Dress for the weather, as you'll be taken to three different locations, connected (ironically) only through street-level accesses, which span approximately three city blocks.

      The tour is definitely a cheeky look at Seattle's past, but gets cheekier in the evenings during the adults-only Underworld Tour. This one drops the innuendo and talks openly about the prostitution, gambling, and drug trade that thrived underground. This is the third year it's been running, and it has also proved popular. “It's a lot of fun, and guides have more freedom with their stories...they don't have to hold back,”  attests assistant tour manager Penny Truitt.

      The tour ends at the Rogue's Gallery, the Underground Tour's souvenir store where you can buy trinkets, books, and a copy of that photo taken moments earlier. It seems all too fitting that the city's tradition of making a quick buck should continue here. No one would disagree that the preservation of Pioneer Square and the surrounding neighbourhood is a positive outcome of Speidel's research. The catacombs of Seattle are truly an astounding part of the city's history, but it's unfortunate that those details are occa?sionally obscured during the tour for the sake of a joke.

      ACCESS: Bill Speidel's Underground Tour runs multiple times daily all year. Check or call (206) 682-4646 for details, as the schedule is seasonal and reservations aren't accepted (with the exception of private tours). As it's first-come, first-served, arrive at least 30 minutes in advance. Tickets cost $11 for adults, $9 for students, and $5 for kids. Very young children may find the tour too long and tiring.

      The tour meets at 608 First Avenue, in Seattle's Pioneer Square, between Cherry Street and Yesler Way. Take the James Street Exit from Interstate 5.