Don’t let the polished facade at street level fool you, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour takes you through a scandalously historic subterranean world.Nestled below the now pristine sidewalks of Seattle’s Pioneer Square Historic District, you’ll travel back to a late 19th century city set in the Pacific Northwest.
Buried Deep in History
Named Seattle in 1853 after Chief Si’ahl of both the local Duwamish and Suqamish tribes, Washington State’s coastal population quickly grew thanks in part to entrepreneur Henry L. Yesler. Considered to be Seattle’s economic father and first millionaire. Yesler built the very first contemporary steam powered sawmill on Seattle’s waterfront in 1852 at the foot of what was then called Mill Road. Teams of oxen skidded harvested trees down Mill Road to the sawmill, prompting Mill Road’s famous nickname Skid Row.
Seattle’s original “Skid Road” on Mill Street, now Yesler Way.
Mill Road, now Yesler Avenue, has been referred to as the separation between Heaven and Hell. The good citizens lived north of skid row, and the seedy sinners, south. This area kept its seedy side reputation intact for decades afterwards, some say even through today.
Yesler, while Mayor of Seattle, made a great deal of his fortune taking advantage of the city and its inhabitants. William C. Speidel, founder of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour defines this rascal and other founding fathers in his book Sons of the Profits.
“Bill Speidel thought that school and history books only cleaned up history. He went for the lowest common denominator and dug up all the dirt, scandal, corruption and vice on Seattle’s founding fathers.”
One fateful afternoon in June 6,1889 a cabinetmaker named John Back was heating glue over a kerosene fire. The glue boiled over and caught fire quickly when it hit the wood chips and turpentine on the floor. Having a paint store directly above and buildings constructed of wood, caused the fire to spread rapidly. Originally built on a landfill that was below sea level, Seattle’s water system lacked the pressure required to support the many hoses needed to put out the fire. Within twelve hours, 33 blocks burned to their foundation. Miraculously no life was lost but the devastation to the city was vast.
Officials decided to re-build and filled in the roads to a higher level, reaching as high as three stories above their original location. Buildings were built above their old foundations, but sidewalks were kept at the original first floor level leaving storefronts below street level. Eventually the open area between the buildings and the elevated street was bridged, creating today’s sidewalks. Glass skylights were inlaid in the new sidewalk allowing sunlight to shine through to Seattle’s original “Underground” storefronts. This created a unique subterranean storefront level that quickly attracted a more sultry business climate.
This façade, featured in Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour, was at street level in the mid-1800’s.
Take a Tour Beneath
Today, Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour reserves the “spicy” details for their evening adult tour. Thrill seekers will learn of a time where female sex workers were registered with the city as “Seamstresses” but rarely picked up a needle or thread.
There were 2,516 women working whose registered occupation was “seamstress. Seen here inside of Lou Graham brothel.
Lou Graham, born Dorothea Georgine Emile Ohben, was a famous Madame who became one of the city’s wealthiest citizens in the later 19th century. (Seated on the left in the picture above) Her tremendous estate went to the school system in Seattle, and still supports it to this day.
Naturally there are family-friendly tours at Bill Speidel’s as well!
Who Knows - you may even catch a glimpse of the ghosts of the Duwamish tribes wandering the dark walkways on this tour. In his controversial Treaty Oration of 1854, Chief Seattle was referenced to have said, “You pushed us off our land, but never forget our spirits will always be here.”
Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour
Photos: Allen Carrasco and courtesy of Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour