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Thursday, June 4, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Backstage Pass

Festival, Tour Prove: History's Hot

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Seattle folk are proud to distinguish themselves from tourists and newcomers, especially when warm weather causes more of them to pop up in Pioneer Square. But be careful in your exclusive ways, Seattle, for you may find that these outsiders walk away knowing more about your city's roots than you do!

On Saturday, for instance, locals will celebrate the anniversary of the Great Fire of 1889 as part of the 1998 Pioneer Square Fire Festival, which runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in Pioneer Square.

The epic fire burned old Seattle to ashes, forcing the town to rebuild what is now the historical district. The free festival starts with a traditional parade of antique and modern fire trucks at First Avenue and University Street. This year the event should be bigger than usual, since it also marks the unveiling of the Seattle Fallen Firefighters' Memorial.

Meanwhile, smack dab in the middle of all this is the booth for Bill Speidel's Underground Tour, right at the front of Doc Maynard's Public House. Seattle folks occasionally pop into Doc Maynard's for a brew, but many are quick to tell you they wouldn't be caught dead or stoned on the Underground Tour. It's a tourist trap, so sayeth purists.

Oh, what you're missing. If you haven't been on the tour since those old elementary-school field trips, you probably don't know that the Emerald City rose to greatness thanks to the hard work of Seattle's founding mothers, our first prostitutes. That's not slander, it's history, said the Underground Tour's resident historian Dana Cox.

Though our modern school system has its problems, it wouldn't be half as great if it weren't for a generous financial gift bestowed by Madam Lou Graham, our original lusty lady. Mama Lou's brothel still stands today, and for a while housed the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association (bedfellows of a different sort, tour guides sometimes point out). Also, Seattle is the home of Skid Road, the nation's first Skid Row.

These are just a couple of the colorful revelations from the Underground Tour. Cox and his fellow tour guides try to keep historically accurate and fun by celebrating the dirty - corruption, sewers and scandal that colored our fair city's beginnings.

"We're coming from a somewhat more revisionist's history of Seattle because . . . these were details left out by more puritanical historians," Cox explained. "If you put the colorful, less glorious aspects back in it's more worth listening to."

Then again, the Fire Festival also has its titillating qualities. Between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., you can enjoy music from the Fabulous Roadstars, the Vancouver, B.C., Firefighters' Swing Orchestra, the Seattle firefighters' band Cecil Berry and blues from Mary Wiles. Other festival amusements include face painting and crafts such as hand-painted clothes and hand-carved stones. The big draw might be the region's favorite porkers in drag, Valentine's Performing Potbellied Pigs. Food is also very Fire Festival oriented, including barbecue, hot dogs, fruit-juice slush and ice cream.

You won't want to touch any food and crafts found along the Underground Tour, except for what's available in the gift shop. Instead, feast your eyes on remnants of Seattle's original first floor, an old theater, the front of a bank, a random desk and some really old pipes. In lieu of hoop-jumping pigs in tutus, tour guides warn, you might see the occasional mouse or rat; they come with the territory. And it's all post-fire structures, so you'll be looking at the first buildings that rose out of the 1889 fire's ashes.

By the way, Cox added, it's a little-known fact that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer mistakenly reported in its June 7, 1889, edition that the fire started in James McGough's paint shop. In reality, it started in the Claremont Cabinet Shop below, where a naughty Swede lit a block of glue and unwisely tried to douse it with water. The rest is history that Underground Tour guides would be happy to share with you. Tours run about 90 minutes each day and admission is $6.50 for adults, $5.50 for seniors, $5 for students, and $2.75 for children 6 through 12; children under 5 are free. For more information, call 206-682-4646.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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