Speidel, Bill (1912-1988) – HistoryLink.org

Bill Speidel answered to many different titles in his hometown of Seattle — author, historian, raconteur, preservationist, newsman, political operative, entrepreneur, and publisher. Known as “Spy” (an abbreviation of his last name) by many of his friends, Speidel wrote a series of best-selling books that are still considered widely influential when it comes to local history and culture. These include, Sons of the Profits, You Can’t Eat Mt. Rainier, and Doc Maynard: The Man Who Invented Seattle. He was probably best known for his key role in helping to preserve the historic neighborhood of Pioneer Square, as well as establishing the popular Seattle Underground Tour, which remains one of the city’s top attractions. Above all else, Speidel was one of the last of the old-time Seattle characters — an outspoken iconoclast whose own firebrand spirit recalled the pioneers that he often wrote about.

Growing Up and Building a Brand

William Charles “Bill” Speidel Jr. was born on February 11, 1912, at Seattle’s Providence Hospital, where his father was a physician. His parents, Dr. William C. Speidel Sr. and Anna Speidel, raised their children in the Mount Baker neighborhood and were prominent in various social circles. In addition to being an esteemed doctor, Bill’s father was also known for his athletic endeavors; in college he was captain of the University of Washington football team and would later co-found the city’s Broadmoor Golf Club.

Bill was the oldest sibling, followed by his sister, Dorothy, and brother, Jack. Speidel attended John Muir Elementary School and was known for having an adventurous spirit that often got him into trouble. He was a voracious reader, and during his teen years particularly enjoyed the novels of Jack London (1876-1916). Drawing inspiration from such books, he once ran away from home to work in Alaska on a boat that catered to affluent hunters. Upon his return, Dr. Speidel encouraged his son to finish high school before embarking on any further adventures. Bill heeded this advice, graduating from Franklin High School in 1931. He then enrolled in classes at the University of Washington, graduating in 1936 with a degree in literature.

After college Speidel landed a job as a police reporter for The Seattle Times and also wrote a column for The Seattle Star. Due to his loquacious style of writing, an editor at the Times once remarked to him, “Bill, you can get more words between facts than anyone I know” (“Bill Speidel: Seattle’s Irreverent Historian”). His unique and wry manner of composition would eventually become one of Speidel’s stylistic trademarks, carrying over into the books he would later write. During his years as a journalist, Speidel would form important friendships with such local luminaries as Emmett Watson (1918-2001) and Murray Morgan (1916-2000).

In 1946, Speidel quit The Seattle Times and opened his own public relations business, representing such local firms as Northwest Airlines and the annual Seattle Boat Show. His office was located on 1st Avenue and Jackson Street, in the historic district of Pioneer Square, thus establishing an early connection to a Seattle neighborhood that would later become an important part of his legacy. Speidel, a member of the Liberal Republican Party, also handled a number of accounts affiliated with local Republican politicians, including the campaign for William Devin (1898-1982), who served as Mayor of Seattle from 1942 through 1952. During this time, Speidel and first wife, Nanon Grinstead (whom he had married soon after college), were also busy raising their three children: William, Marion, and Julie. By the end of the decade, their marriage had ended in divorce.

In 1952, Speidel purchased ownership of The Seattle Guide, a longtime weekly entertainment publication that was marketed toward tourists. Joining him in this endeavor was his second wife, Shirley Ross Speidel (1916-1994), whom he had married on December 2, 1951. Shirley would prove to be highly influential in Speidel’s life; they would make many important business decisions together and she would later push him into his eventual role as a historic preservation activist. Bill would often refer to Shirley as his “toughest editor” (“Shirley R. Speidel, 77…”). The Speidels moved to nearby Vashon Island, where they welcomed the birth of their daughter, Sunny. The house they moved into had been in the Speidel family since the turn of the century and would continue to serve as their family home for the remainder of his life.

Historian and Author

In 1955 Speidel established the Nettle Creek Publishing Company, which published his first book, a compendium of local restaurants and recipes called You Can’t Eat Mount Rainier. This was followed by two other books devoted to regional dining: Be My Guest! In the Pacific Northwest! A Complete Guide to the Region’s Best Restaurants, published in 1957, and You Still Can’t Eat Mt. Rainier!, published in 1961. Speidel’s intimate knowledge of the local culinary scene, accrued from his experience running The Seattle Guide, provided a good foundation for these early books, which also showcased his colorful and whimsical style of writing. Local historian Paul Dorpat (b. 1938) once remarked that “Speidel’s writing was appealing to the public because given the choice between some boring statement or a comic leap, he invariably chose the latter” (“Pioneer Square Savior …”).

By the mid-1960s, Speidel had immersed himself in studying local history, which prompted the his next book, Sons of the Profits, subtitled There’s No Business Like Grow Business! The Seattle Story 1851-1901. The 1967 book provided a rather irreverent look at Seattle’s early history, which in Speidel’s opinion had been deceptively whitewashed to present an overly favorable view of the city’s founders. Speidel objected to what he called “pasteurized history,” and made sure that his books included any scandalous events that had been skipped over in previous historical accounts. This unapologetic, warts-and-all style of revisionist history reflected Speidel’s candid spirit, which would define much of his writing.

While researching Seattle’s early history, Speidel developed a fascination with pioneer David Swinson “Doc” Maynard (1808-1873), which led him to write his next historical work, Doc Maynard: The Man Who Invented Seattle. Maynard’s exploits had been previously documented in Murray Morgan’s popular history book, Skid Road, but Speidel went much deeper into Maynard’s story, positing that the hard-drinking, polyamorous Maynard never received due credit for his civic contributions because, in the eyes of the other, more pious, pioneers, he lacked respectability. As Speidel put it, Maynard was a “conman with a conscience,” but was Seattle’s true hero when it came to the city’s development.

The Doc Maynard biography was published in 1978, and in the eyes of many it finally gave Maynard his due place in the annals of Seattle history. Speidel’s fascination with Maynard continued for the remainder of his life, and he even went before the King County Council to argue that the Seattle’s Kingdome should be called Maynard Stadium. When his proposed name lost out, Speidel was inspired to open Doc Maynard’s Public House — a tavern and live-music venue located in Pioneer Square. It opened in 1975, and one of Seattle’s founding fathers now had both a building (the Maynard Building, built in 1892) and a business bearing his name.

The Seattle Underground

Inspired by his historical research, Speidel began looking into rumors of hidden buildings and tunnels that had reportedly been buried under the city following the Great Seattle Fire of 1889. He assembled a ragtag team of UW undergraduates, city librarians, and docents from the Museum of History and Industry and Industry (MOHAI) and together they began exploring and clearing out this entombed part of the city. During this period of urban spelunking, Speidel still wrote occasional pieces for The Seattle Times as a guest columnist.

In 1963 the paper published an article by Speidel in which he described Seattle’s secret “underground city” to a fascinated public. He explained that after the Great Seattle Fire, new buildings had been quickly erected, but only later were the levels of several downtown city streets raised by up to 18 feet. This created a catacomb of hidden storefronts and tunnels in the Pioneer Square area. Speidel would later refer to the underground as “the Seattle version of the ‘Ruins of Pompeii'” (“Seattle Underground” tour booklet).

Speidel credited a former Chamber of Commerce employee, Nancy Davis, with sparking his interest in the underground. Word got out of his plans, mainly through articles in the Times, and to Speidel’s amazement, about 500 people showed up on a Saturday at 3 p.m. for the inaugural tour. Each made a one dollar donation, and the Seattle Underground Tour was officially born. Regularly scheduled tours began when the new business was formalized on Memorial Day weekend in 1965. Speidel recruited local college students to lead visitors through the dark underground corridors of “Old Seattle,” and Doc Maynard’s Public House would later serve as the tour’s entrance. To this day the Underground Tour remains one of the city’s best-known tourist attractions, with about 120,000 visitors each year, and it has also been used as the backdrop for TV shows and movies, including the 1973 film, The Night Strangler.

Three months after welcoming that first crowd of curious onlookers to view the Underground, Speidel celebrated another important milestone. He had been battling alcoholism for several years, and all the drinking had started to negatively interfere with his life. With strong encouragement from his wife, Speidel entered treatment with Alcoholics Anonymous on November 24, 1964, and he would remain completely sober for the remainder of his life. Speidel would always remain proud of his sobriety, often boasting to people that he was ”the least anonymous alcoholic in the Northwest,” adding, ”in a way, I feel like the reincarnation of Doc Maynard — if Doc Maynard had quit drinking” (“How It Got Going”).

The Savior of Pioneer Square

With the Seattle Underground Tour established, Speidel used its popularity to generate support for his next crusade — the creation of the Pioneer Square Historic District. At the time, much of Pioneer Square, Seattle’s original neighborhood, had deteriorated into slum-like conditions. Many of its historic Victorian-Romanesque buildings had become derelict, prompting plans to demolish and rebuild.

At the same time, a robust historical-preservation movement had taken hold in the city. Groups such as Allied Arts had emerged, and were active in preserving the historical character of Seattle by saving its old buildings and structures from the wrecking ball. Speidel joined forces with members of this new movement, including architects Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985) and Ralph Anderson (1924-2010), and art dealer Richard White (1924-2002). Together, they led the effort to save Pioneer Square from the developer-friendly plans of the Central Association (now the Downtown Seattle Association), which wanted to completely rebuild the area. Speidel often took the helm in these efforts, battling developers with organized demonstrations, newsletters, and fiery speeches. At one news conference, he told reporters, ”This is hardball. I’m doing battle with the tough guys. What I want is a ruckus!” (“Bill Speidel Fights …”).

In 1968 Speidel became secretary of the newly formed Pioneer Square Association. He helped gather enough signatures for a petition to declare Pioneer Square a historic site, which would prevent any further demolition of its buildings. The Speidel-led group was successful in its efforts, and in 1970 the 16-square-block neighborhood was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Later that year, the neighborhood became an official City Preservation District, leading to several historically important buildings being restored to their original luster. 

The celebrated success of the Pioneer Square Historic District paved the way for other, similar efforts throughout the city. This included the “Save the Market” campaign, led by Steinbrueck, in which Seattle voters approved a 1971 initiative that saved the Pike Place Market from demolition by having it declared a historic district. Looking back on this era of his life, Speidel would later remark that ”Pioneer Square wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for S.O.B.s like me. They played rough, and we played rougher. We were pitching restoration, not devastation” (“The Man Who Beat City Hall …”)

The Last Hurrah

Even in his later years, Speidel remained a fixture in Pioneer Square, overseeing the Underground Tours, giving interviews about the history of the neighborhood, and working on various projects in his longtime office space. He was always proud to point out that his office had once been a flophouse. He became known for his white beard and stooped posture, as well as his outgoing personality. Many of his friends and family remarked that, as he grew older, he took on many of the characteristics he believed Maynard possessed. On any given day, the elder Speidel could be seen having animated conversations with local shopkeepers and tourists, as well as members of the neighborhood’s homeless population, several of whom he had developed close friendships with. He was known for his colorful and good-humored stories. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he once remarked, “They might see a bent-over guy, and I may look crippled and maybe I can’t see worth a hoot. But I’m at the age now where I don’t give a damn. If they ask me the wrong question — look out!” (“Bill Speidel, Seattle Historian …”).

Speidel had several projects he continued to work on, including his role in helping to establish the King County Blood Bank, as well as leading a successful campaign to have the word ”illegitimate” deleted from county birth certificates. As his father had been 40 years earlier, Speidel also became president of the UW Alumni Association. In a role well-suited to Speidel’s personality, he became a member of the Washington State Board on Geographic Names and was known to clash with other board members who wanted to change traditional site names due to any unsavory historical associations.

In March of 1988, Speidel suffered a stroke that left him in the intensive care unit at Providence Hospital. He eventually succumbed to complications and died on May 3, 1988. He was 76 years old, and died in the same hospital he was born in. A well-attended memorial was held for him on Vashon Island, with tributes pouring in from several of his longtime friends and colleagues. Murray Morgan described Speidel as “a tremendous character, a man who did a lot to popularize history” (“Bill Speidel, Seattle Historian …”). Architect Ralph Anderson remarked, ”I’ve known him since 1962, when the Pioneer Square area was kind of down and out. He moved into a building I had bought in the area. Bill brought an awful lot of support to our efforts to breathe life back into the area. We will all miss his great sense of humor” (“Pioneer Square Savior …”). Emmett Watson wrote a moving eulogy for his old friend, describing Speidel as “a man of courtliness, grace and good manners. Few, if any, of the Seattle pioneers, the movers and shakers that he wrote about in a half-dozen historical books, gave as much to this city as the author” (“Seattle Loses Another …”).

At the time of his death, Speidel was nearing the completion of a book titled Through the Eye of the Needle. The work offers a more contemporary history of Seattle, presented as a series of anecdotes written in Speidel’s trademark style of wry composition. Shirley Speidel worked hard to see that her late husband’s final work made it through to completion, and in November 1989 the book was posthumously released by their publishing company, Nettle Creek. The Underground Tour continues to be one of the city’s top attractions and is now run by one of his surviving children, Sunny Speidel, who serves as the company’s president and CEO.  



Sources:

Bill Speidel, “Pioneer Square Interesting Part of Seattle History,” The Seattle Times, November 24, 1963, p. C7; “Times Troubleshooter,” Ibid., August 3, 1964, p. 2 ; Don Duncan, “Baedeker to Seattle’s Skid Road,” Ibid., May 17, 1965, p. 15; Dorothy Brant Brazier, “Join The Underground–It May Not Be Exactly Relaxing, But It Is Fun,” Ibid., April 17, 1966, p. S3; “Mayor Gets Petition To Save Square,” Ibid., October 13, 1968, p. 41; Alf Collins, “Bill Speidel: Seattle’s Irreverent Historian,” Ibid., April 13, 1980, p. E1; Don Duncan, “Bill Speidel, Seattle Historian and Underground Guide, Dies,” Ibid., May 4, 1988, p. A1; Emmett Watson, “Seattle Loses Another of Its Giants in Bill Speidel,” Ibid., May 8, 1988, p. E1; Carole Beers, “Shirley R. Speidel, 77, Known As Free Spirit Who Enjoyed Life,” Ibid., August 8, 1994, p. B6; Melanie McFarland, “Festival, Tour Prove History’s Hot,” Ibid., June 4, 1998, p. G2; Cathy Neville, “Seattle Uncovers Its Underground,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 9, 1968, p. 2; Emmett Watson, “How It Got Going,” Ibid., January 12, 1975, p. 17; Timothy Egan, “Bill Speidel Fights For Dusty Hole In Underground Seattle,” Ibid., August 15, 1984, p. 1; Joe Mooney, “Bill Speidel Revels in Digging Up the Dirt on the City with a Past,” Ibid., July 7, 1987, p. 5; Don Tewskesbury, “Pioneer Square Savior Bill Speidel Dies at 76,” Ibid., May 5, 1988, p. B1; Jean Godden, “The Man Who Beat City Hall — Bill Speidel Was A Real Scrapper For Causes He Believed In,” Ibid., May 6, 1988, p. E1; Catherine Tse, “Seattle’s Catacombs Tunnel into a Fiery Past,” Vancouver Free Press, May 25, 2006; Bill Speidel, “Seattle Underground,” (promotional booklet published by Seattle Underground Tours, 1968); “Who’s Bill Speidel?” Underground Tour website accessed on April 26, 2021 (http://www.undergroundtour.com/about/history.html);  Brad Holden interviews with Sunny Speidel, April-May, 2021, notes in possession of Brad Holden, Seattle; HistoryLink.org Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Underground tours of Pioneer Square begin in August 1964” (by Walt Crowley), https://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 28, 2021).









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