Walking tour burrows into Seattle’s past

When the now abandoned businesses and streets below Seattle’s Pioneer Square were at ground level more than a century ago, backed-up sewage and muddy, often impassable streets were constant problems, because most of the area was at or below sea level. From 1889 to 1905, the streets were raised eight to 35 feet on wood, brick, or stone retaining walls. Soon thereafter, the ground-level spaces were bridged over as planned. Today, the only way to see this urban archaeological tour is to join a 75-minute, five-square-block tour.

The Underground Tour, created by Bill Speidel in 1965, is often overlooked by Seattleites unless out-of-towners are visiting. It starts at Doc Maynard’s Public House, 610 First Avenue, where guides provide a lively 15-minute introduction. From there, stairs near the corner of First and Yesler Way lead to the original Northern Hotel. You’ll follow a musty underground passage to the Scandinavian American Bank, where you’ll see a boarded-up teller’s window and walk through an empty vault.

A half block east, at the Moses Korn Building, four hand-turned wood columns look like pudgy sentries in the former Mechanics Store. Next, you’ll see the stone retaining walls under Occidental Avenue and walk through the old Bijou Theater, where the original pressed tin clings stubbornly to half the ceiling.

The tour ends at Rogues Gallery, a small museum filled with photographs, dioramas, and newspaper clippings of Seattle’s early history.

Although most of the tour is sheltered, you’ll go outside three times to reach the highlights, so don’t forget your umbrella or raincoat. Wear comfortable shoes, because you’ll descend and climb stairs and walk on uneven terrain.

Tours run daily on the hour, 9 a.m.-7 p.m. April-September and 10 a.m.-6 p.m. October-March, except for Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas. No tours are scheduled on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Reservations are recommended; pick up reserved tickets 20 minutes before your tour at the Underground Tour booth at 614 First Avenue, in Pioneer Place Park at Pioneer Square. Buy tickets at the booth, online, or by phone. For more information, visit the Underground Tour’s website or call (206) 682-4646.

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