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Thea Foss launches the future tugboat firm on the Tacoma waterfront in the summer of 1889.
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In the summer of 1889, Thea Foss (1857-1927), a recent immigrant and new bride from Norway, buys the rowboat that launches the Foss Launch Company. Sitting on the porch of her houseboat on the Tacoma waterfront, she purchases the boat for five dollars from a fuming, disgruntled, failed fisherman. Thea's husband Andrew Foss, a carpenter, is up in the valley building a shed at the time. Before long, Thea sells this rowboat for $15 and buys two more boats from two more discouraged fishermen. Thea begins renting the boats for 50 cents a day. By the time Andrew returns from his shed-building job with $32, Thea has amassed $41. Thus begins what will grow to become the Foss Launch and Tug Company and then Foss Maritime, one of the largest tugboat and marine services firms on the West Coast.
A Tidy Sum
Back in 1889, the carpenter returned to his houseboat home to be confronted with Thea's tidy sum. As historian Murray Morgan quips, "Andrew thought a while and decided to build rowboats" (Puget's Sound, p. 260). Before long Andrew and Thea had built or bought 200 boats and rented them to fishermen, duck hunters, picnickers, and workers requiring rides to sawmills inaccessible by land during high tides.
Their first power vessel was the steamer St. Patrick, a vessel that had run aground at the head of Commencement Bay. Andrew built a new hull and transferred the wrecked steamer's engine and boiler to the new craft of the same name. By this time his Norwegian brothers had arrived from Minnesota and joined in the enterprise.
The Fosses then sold the excellent St. Patrick for another steamer, the Lizzie A. As Murray Morgan explains, the Lizzie A was the worst vessel the Fosses ever owned. She was slow and unreliable, despite Andrew's incessant puttering. One day, when Andrew was away, Thea sold the old thing for $500 and a pair of horses.
According to Morgan, Andrew grumbled. But with the proceeds, they purchased a Naphtha-fueled vessel, the Hope. This sturdy vessel provided transportation from ship to shore and back for years to come in the increasingly boat-busy Commencement Bay.
A Growing Company
The company did more and more business. Andrew designed boats to "raft booms" (huge Douglas fir logs launched into the bay). These "squat, snub-nosed, round-sterned craft" can still be seen "butting waves on the Sound" wrote Morgan in 1972.
Thea and Andrew's sons Arthur, Weddell, and Henry Foss grew up in the business. During World War I, the Fosses were able to buy into a Seattle tugboat firm, expanding Foss Launch and Tug Company to Elliott Bay and northern Puget Sound. The family continued to operate the company, eventually named Foss Maritime, for many years. After the Fosses sold the company, its headquarters were moved from Tacoma to Seattle. In Tacoma, the former City Waterway was renamed the Thea Foss Waterway in honor of the tugboat-company pioneer.
Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound: A Narrative of Early Tacoma and the Southern Sound (Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1979), 259-262; "History," Foss Maritime website accessed April 15, 2015 (http://www.foss.com/about-us/history/).
Note: This essay was corrected and revised on April 15, 2015.
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