Twelve-feet under

Bill Speidel was fascinated by two things: history and subterranean tunnels. He wasn’t the only one who knew that Seattle had raised its street level during the late 1800s—in some places by two stories in height—after perpetual flooding and a devastating fire caused city leaders to take this most radical of steps. But Speidel, a columnist for the Seattle Times, turned out to be the one best able to use this knowledge. When a reader asked him in 1965 to describe the city’s vast underground, the columnist replied in print that the reader could find out by meeting him that next Saturday at 3 p.m. at Pioneer Square to accompany him on a tour.

The reader showed up. So did 300 other people.

Speidel’s Underground Tour of Seattle was born. To this day, it’s a popular tourist attraction where visitors—especially out-of-towners and school kids—are led on a 90-minute, comedy-laced (think Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise) excursion through Seattle’s underground past. In fact, Speidel’s tour sparked a partnership that ultimately spared parts of this city-beneath-the-city from decay and demolition.

Sacramento should have taken a lesson back then.

That’s because we too have an underground. Thanks to constant flooding, city leaders decided in 1860 to lift much of our city center to a new height. By 1877, the area now bordered by H and L streets, and from the river on Front Street in Old Sacramento to about 12th Street, was lifted 10 to 12 feet off the previous street level. Buildings became basements and catacombs; streets became mysterious underground tunnels.

But Sacramento had no Speidel. And city leaders were more focused during the late ’60s and ’70s on a redevelopment push in Old Sacramento, the Downtown Plaza and the K Street Mall. Plus a light-rail line was coming through. These projects and others shrunk what remained of the underground. Still, locals attest to having walked—as late as the 1970s—through sprawling and expansive sequences of tunnels reaching as far as 10 blocks from downtown to Old Sacramento. More recently, a 2003 SN&R cover story (“The past below” by Cosmo Garvin, July 17, 2003) revealed that basements and tunnels still exist under places like Records at 710 K Street.

Last week, the Historic Old Sacramento Foundation announced plans to launch a permanent Underground Sacramento tour this spring. That’s great news. And it makes sense that a tour would originate in Old Sacramento since it’s the region’s biggest tourist attraction.

But allow us to make a modest suggestion: Make the vision big. Think like Speidel and seize the opportunity. Dare the city and its leaders to back the tour and its historic mission. Lobby them to nourish a concurrent effort—perhaps in partnership with historic preservationists and entrepreneurs—to protect what still remains of Sacramento’s underground. As the region’s gaze turns upward to the skyline and towers that seemingly define our future, let’s not forget that much that is worthy and true about Sacramento’s rich character also can be found in the past and deep underground.