Under and over: rediscovering Seattle

My travels have taken me to all parts of the globe. Yet I'm embarrassed to admit I've neglected my own city, with its many must-see sights attracting visitors from all over the world. It was high time, I decided, to check out some of these experiences myself. That way, I not only could talk the talk; I could walk the walk when it comes to making recommendations to out-of-town guests regarding Seattle's hotspots.

Down under

First stop was Bill Speidel's Underground Tour in Pioneer Square. On a sunny weekday morning I joined a group of tourists at Doc Maynard's Public House, a restored 1890s saloon. It appeared that I, being a "local," was definitely in the minority, but I decided to view myself as a tourist along with everyone else.

With that frame of mind, I proceeded to enjoy playing sightseer for the day.

The Underground Tour was created in 1965 by one of Seattle's genuine characters. Once a reporter for The Seattle Times and columnist for the long-defunct Seattle Star, Bill Speidel turned to the public-relations business in 1946 and became a fervent preservationist in the 1950s and '60s. He was one of several visionaries who organized a citizen campaign to persuade the city to designate Pioneer Square a historic district, thus sparing it from the wrecking ball.

There'd been many rumors that the ruins of early Seattle lay underneath the city's modern-day streets in Pioneer Square, but most people didn't believe it. Speidel, along with many others, spent months poking around the area.

Ultimately he did find the remains of the city that had been consumed in the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. It had been a town founded on soggy tideflats, whose streets, when it rained, would fill with mud deep enough to consume dogs and even small children.

At that time, the place was a mess: sawdust-covered streets, buildings on stilts, as well as massive sanitation problems. When the daily tides came in, toilets became geysers and the sewers flowed backwards.

It was obvious Seattle was in desperate need of urban renewal, and with the fire of 1889 it got its chance. When the conflagration occurred, 25 square blocks of wooden buildings in the heart of the city were destroyed. The powers-that-be made the decision that all new construction had to be of stone or brick masonry.

They also opted to raise the city up from the muck by building tall retaining walls on either side of the old streets, filling in the space between the walls and paving over the fill to raise the streets.

The new thoroughfares were now one story higher than the old sidewalks that ran alongside them. Buildings were constructed without owners being aware that their first floors would soon become basements.

Eventually, sidewalks closed the gap between the new streets and the second stories of buildings, leaving tunnels between the old and new sidewalks. These tunnels created the passageways of today's Underground.

After an introduction to this history in the jam-packed Doc Maynard's, our tour group was divided into three smaller parties, each taken by a guide to roam the subterranean passages that were the former main roads and first-floor storefronts of old downtown.

We went to several sections of the Underground - about three blocks in all - and learned of the businesses that had been located there. The passageways were clearly marked and there were remains of signs and other artifacts, as well as photos of old Seattle.

At one point, through a skylight, you could see the sidewalks above; people's feet traipsed by overhead. It was an eerie feeling to walk through the dank tunnels, knowing that Seattle's pioneers once trod these spaces so many years ago.

Emerging into daylight after spending an hour "down under" felt good. I decided to stroll the streets of Pioneer Square to experience the area from aboveground. I viewed it differently after having had an insight into its history and struggles, and realized that the tour helped give me a newfound appreciation of this special section of Seattle.

Sacred ground

Another destination on my must-see, pretend-tourist list was Tillicum Village, so I headed over to Pier 55.

My experience began with a 45-minute harbor cruise on an Argosy boat. The vessel possessed plenty of indoor and outdoor seating and employed a host of friendly attendants. The captain navigated and narrated his way through the harbor and quickly entered open water, leaving the bustle of city life behind. Sea lions and bald eagles made their appearance as the boat motored toward Blake Island and our destination.

Once we reached the island, staffers - representing numerous Northwest Coast Indian tribes - greeted us with an appetizer of steamed clams in nectar. They encouraged us to crush the clamshells on the ground after we had finished picking out the moist, tasty meat; children as well as adults pitched in with relish.

Passing among many totems, we slowly proceeded up the ramps to the famous cedar longhouse, styled after the ancient communal dwellings of the Northwest Coast Indian tribes. Three buffet tables laden with food were set up, making service for several hundred people an efficient and smooth operation. As we heaped fresh salad, warm brown bread, wild rice, new potatoes and salmon onto our fish-shaped plates, we inhaled the sweet scent of alderwood coals burning in indoor pits where the salmon cooked. We dined in a vast, tiered room that was set up in a dinner-theater configuration with a grand stage set in front.

As we nibbled at our dessert - chocolate salmon candies - the lights dimmed and a narrator's voice began the 30-minute show, "Dance on the Wind." Young performers brought myth and magic to life; through dance and music, they shared the stories of their ancestors' customs, beliefs and spiritual traditions.

Blake Island, an ancestral camping ground of the Suquamish tribe, may have been the birthplace of Chief Seattle, the city's namesake. Tillicum Village, named from the Chinook Jargon meaning "friendly people," was founded in 1962 by Bill Hewitt and created with the specific purpose of exposing people to American Indian cultures of the Pacific Northwest.

As I boarded the boat for the return journey, I looked longingly back at the island, relishing its atmosphere of peace and tranquility.

Both the Underground Tour and Tillicum Village experiences taught me the importance of getting out and viewing my city in tourists' shoes - not only for the fresh perspective it provides but also to help me see, once again, that I am fortunate to live in such a unique place.

For information about Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, call 682-4646. Tickets are on a first-come, first-served basis.

To make reservation (recommended) at Tillicum Village, call 933-8600.[[In-content Ad]]