Anniversary Series: The Arthur Foss turns 125

2014 is a big year for anniversaries in Pacific Northwest maritime history. This summer, we’re doing a series of articles on some of the significant local organizations and vessels celebrating major milestones.

The Arthur Foss at the Historic Ships Wharf on South Lake Union

The Arthur Foss at the Historic Ships Wharf on South Lake Union – (Photo by Joe Mabel)

Foss tugboats are as an iconic part of Puget Sound views as Orcas or Mount Rainier.

The company was founded in 1889 in Tacoma by Andrew and Thea Foss, starting out with a single rowboat painted in the now iconic green and white livery. Eventually, their growing concern expanded to the rest of the Sound, then eventually to the West Coast and Pacific.

That same year, the tug Wallowa was built in Portland by the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company to tow sailing ships across the Columbia River Bar. The steam-powered tug was built stout for the task, but she wasn’t at it for long when the Klondike gold rush gave her a more glamorous and profitable role, hauling barges and ships full of prospective prospectors and supplies for the same up the Inside Passage.

Wallowa went up as far as St. Michael on the Yukon in the employ of the White Star Line of Alaska. But the rush was short-lived, and by the time it was done in 1900, Wallowa was relegated to the mail run between Haines, Skagway, and Juneau.

Although the age of sail was fading, and the gold rush lost its luster, the age of timber wasn’t going anywhere, and Wallowa found gainful employment towing logs on Puget Sound. There, she caught the eye of Foss Launch and Tug Company, which bought her in 1929. One of her first jobs with the company was an unusual one: she was leased out to MGM to star as the tug Narcissus in the 1934 film “Tugboat Annie,” a movie thought to be loosely based on the life of Thea Foss herself.

After her star turn, Wallowa went into the yard for a rebuild and to be repowered with a 700hp Washington Iron Works diesel (the engine that remains in her today). When she came out, she had not only a new engine, but a new name: Arthur Foss. With the additional horsepower and reliability of the diesel, Arthur Foss was a fast and in-demand coastal tug up and down the Pacific Coast.

In February 1941, Foss chartered her out to Pacific Naval Airbase Contractors, who put her to work hauling military supplies from Hawaii to the isolated American outpost at Wake Island. The morning of December 8, 1941 (Wake being on the far side of the International Date Line) found her a mere twelve hours out from Wake on a return trip to Pearl Harbor, when news of the surprise Japanese attack was received. Painted in the traditional Foss white and green, and well within scouting distance of one of the primary follow-on targets of the Japanese Navy, the tug and her crew were a big bullseye in a lonely ocean.

The Justine Foss, which was left behind at Wake, was not so lucky. Subject to near-constant air attacks from December 8 on, Justine and her crew were still at the island on December 23 when the Japanese landed. Justine was sunk and most of her crew executed.

Like many workboats during the war years, Arthur Foss spent her time in service of the Navy, renamed Dohasan (after a Kiowa chief) and was assigned to the 14th Naval District in Hawaii, working at hundreds of miscellaneous military towing assignments. In 1946, the war won, she was returned to Foss, and put back to her plodding pre-rebuild work of towing logs around the Pacific Northwest.

In 1968, having set a record for the longest uninterrupted log-towing service in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Arthur Foss had finally outworn her usefulness and was retired.

Most old wooden tugs of that age were broken up or fell to ignominious fates of fire or rot, but Arthur Foss caught a break in that Save Our Ships (SOS) — the organization that would later become Northwest Seaport — had been founded only four years earlier (the year Art turned 75).

Though established specifically to preserve the Wawona, the leaders of SOS quickly saw the historical value of Arthur Foss and when that vessel was offered to them in 1970, they snapped it up as well.

On her 100th anniversary, the Arthur Foss was declared a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service (which also makes this year the 25th anniversary of that designation). Today, she is the oldest known wooden-hulled tug still afloat and in operating condition in the United States today.

Although her old Washington Iron Works diesel still turns over intermittently, Arthur is a museum ship now, moored more or less permanently at the Historic Ships Wharf on South Lake Union. Northwest Seaport offers a popular Tugboat Storytime series aboard, bringing children and parents aboard to listen to stories and sing chanteys, and allows just about anyone to spend the night aboard as a part of their Tugboat Sleepovers program.

Recently, the organization received a grant from King County’s 4Culture program to complete the revitalization of the tug’s onboard systems. Provided that Northwest Seaport can match the grant amount, they’ll receive $25,000 to put into her … keeping her in shape to weather the next 125 years.

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