This story originally aired on April 20, 2019.
In spite of the cranes on the skyline, there are still a few visible markers of Seattle as it was — old houses, old alleyways, a pergola that’s been knocked down but always gets put back up. The people who live here or visit always seem to be reaching out to grasp it, that oldness. I felt like that too, when I moved to Seattle a decade ago. I wanted to know what it was like then. Whenever then was.
I began gobbling up materials, skulking through digital archives. But I found that there are not enough books or stories or grainy photos of Seattle to really scratch that itch. A person who wants to know how Seattle used to be will always be left wanting more. When I asked around about how I could get my hit of history, I heard the same advice, over and over: the Underground Tour.
Really? A tourist attraction? That’s the answer?
For a lot of people, it is. Creepier than a museum and more immersive (quite literally) than a trip to the library, the Underground Tour remains one of Seattle’s most beloved portals into those pre-gold rush days.
That’s the goal of it, anyway. Created by former Seattle Times writer and self-made historial Bill Speidel, the Underground Tour purports to remind us “of who we were before Microsoft, Starbucks, Ichiro and Death Cab for Cutie,” according to the website.
The tour was created for both visitors and residents alike. In addition to being a writer and gentleman historian, Speidel and his wife, Shirley, were active in the historic preservation community. They created the tour as a way to help make our collective history more visible and tangible — and in doing so, Speidel hoped, encourage an interest in saving old buildings and locations.
As the Speidels beat their fists, the story goes, against City Hall, fighting what the Underground Tour calls “government sanctioned devastation...the idea that you could bulldoze blight, start ever-so-fresh, and live happily, sanitarily ever after,” they also drummed up public support. As a result, Pioneer Square was deemed a historic landmark neighborhood, spared from the demolition team.
Spokespeople for the underground tour didn’t want to give an interview, so I decided to take the tour to see whether or not it would satisfy my insatiable need to know more about this town.
In its modern iteration, the underground tour is mostly aimed at visitors, as most tourist attractions are. Still, the basic information that’s baked into the tour — a script which Speidel wrote himself and ultimately turned into a series of books, all of which are for sale at the gift shop at the end of the tour — trickles upwards, from the sunken basements of Pioneer Square to the cultural consciousness of those who live and work here.
Gillian Thomas is a Redmond native. In the aforementioned gift shop, she tells me that she’s taken the tour nearly a dozen times because, as a local, it makes her proud:
“Well I mean what other city has had itself built on top of itself in the same way where we still protect the underground. Every time you go in you get a different story, you see something different. Somebody always has a story from their own time period, their own city. And it really did protect the culture. I just really love coming down here. It’s so spooky too, you know?”
Indeed, we, as Seattleites, love the miscreants in our stories — and we largely have Speidel to thank for knowing their names. Here’s Speidel from 1981:
“San Francisco wrote its rascals into its history while Seattle was writing its rascals out of its history. And I’m writing the rascals back in, and they’re interesting guys!”
Speidel set out to ensure that those “rascals” were never forgotten. In fact, he wanted to put them front and center. He loved a dirty joke, a wild turn, and the occasional dash of casual sexism — and sometimes, that means the hard facts came second.
Right above where Gillian and I talked, hangs particularly large example. It is a portrait of a handsome woman, sitting stylishly amid several other prim women. The woman is, purportedly, Madame Lou Graham — and it seems to be the only photo anyone knows of of the famed brothel owner and silent financial backer of young Seattle.
But for some reason, the picture has always rubbed me wrong, so I asked historian Paul Dorpat about it. Dorpat, who has written a weekly column for The Seattle Times for longer than I’ve been alive, is credited as the owner of the photo — and, over chowder at Ivar’s, he gave me the full story.
Here’s what happened, as he tells it.
Years ago, a friend of Dorpat’s found a box of glass negatives at a used book store. Among them was the photo. Interested in who might be pictured, he asked someone who was known for two key characteristics, according to Dorpat: his willingness to give interviews and his considerable age.
Joshua Green, born in 1868, lived to be 105 years old and remained gregarious until the end. He and his family were notable early Seattleites — he’s the Green of the Stimson-Green Manor — and Green had even had a run-in with Graham when he was a young man.
According to Dorpat, Green was at Graham’s brothel once when the police raided the joint; Green escaped by shimmying down a pipe.
And Green identified her. Which was pretty good proof for most people. So Dorpat published a story featuring the image and the rest was history.
Years later, though, Dorpat would note a discrepancy. Specifically, looking through the rest of the slides, he found images of buildings that weren’t built until well after Graham died in 1903. He corrected the record slightly; a sidebar in "Seattle 1900 - 1920," which he co-authored with Richard C. Berner, states “the original negative for this Seattle scene is part of a collection of glass plates — all of Seattle subjects — that date from around 1910.”
But the damage — if you can call it damage — is done and the photo still makes the rounds. It’s on HistoryLink and it’s used in any number of blog posts and articles. And so, it’s gospel. Because that is still how we share our history. We pass it around just like our ancestors did, telling stories and maybe embellishing here and there. But there’s usually a grain of truth in there somewhere.
That’s the case with another famous Graham rumor, which can be sourced to the writing of Bill Speidel — the story about how, when she died, she bequeathed her considerable estate to the Seattle Public Schools.
This isn’t true, but not for lack of trying. While King County wanted Graham’s money, she didn’t bequeath it to them. Quite the opposite; she had little in the way of last wishes, and her death lead to a three-year-long landgrab between her attorney, local government officials and her long-lost relatives back in Germany. The money ended up going to her family, not the schools — and many of her extravagant jewels were auctioned off and scattered to the four winds.
But if you ask a Seattleite, they’ll most likely tell you Speidel’s version — whether they know it or not. Graham’s building, located at the corner of Washington and Third, is a historic landmark. To commemorate her legacy, there’s a plaque which reads “on her death in 1903, her estate was given to the public schools of King County.” Speidel’s books were used as a source for the inscription.
There are more examples of alternative facts that circulate around Madame Lou Graham. There’s the one about the way she paraded her girls around on carriages, although that appears to be a completely different madame, and that her early death was “an occupational hazard”— code for syphilis — though there’s no proof of that, either.
When we talked, Dorpat told me that it doesn’t matter. The story is the story, whether it’s exactly true or not. Plus, Speidel was instrumental in saving Pioneer Square from demolition. It was his curiosity that led him to uncover many of the underground tunnels to begin with.
It’s probably true that I wouldn’t even know about Madame Lou Graham were it not for Speidel. But I don’t know that I love that answer. Because to me, the reason that our history is skewed is that it hasn’t been told by enough people. The reason the facts are wrong is because the facts have been funneled through individual lenses consisting of white dudes and their memories and assumptions.
This isn’t out of spite. In telling stories about Seattle (and yes, sometimes polishing them up for public consumption), Speidel froze the town in time. He made space for those of us who can’t get enough of how it once was.
Now, maybe it’s up to the rest of us to peel back that history a little and see what else there is to find — and even set it a little more straight. I think that correcting the plaque on Madame Lou Graham’s building is a good place to start.
But a generation later, as the city looks around to decide what can or should be saved, Speidel’s legacy is not that he bent the truth, but rather that he salvaged the places where the truth took place.