A casual observer may describe the Arthur Foss with her elegant, traditional lines as a beautiful old boat. A more astute admirer could guess that she is a tug from the 19th century. But nobody could possibly guess the boat’s entire storied past that puts most other vessels to shame. Last month on September 3, the venerable boat’s 130th anniversary of commercial towing service was celebrated for good reason.
The Arthur Foss, under a variety of names, always finds herself in the center of events and projects that would come to define the character of the Pacific Northwest and wider United States, from the Alaska Gold Rush to World War II. Along the way, she dodged enemy planes and survived fires to become a National Historic Landmark, the consummate Northwest workboat, and possibly the oldest wood-hulled tugboat still in service.
Constructed in 1889 for the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company in Portland, Oregon, and originally named Wallowa, the tug that would become the Arthur Foss, was launched in the summer of 1889 and outfitted by that September 3. The first captain of the Wallowa was R.E. Howes, who was experienced at pulling sailboats over the dangerous Columbia River bar, the Wallowa’s primary job at that time. She went on her first inspection run over the bar on September 23, 1889, and passed with flying colors.
The Wallowa had been pulling ships across the bar for almost a decade when she was leased to the White Star Line and left her home base of Astoria, Oregon to pull the sidewheeler Yosemite up the Inside Passage. On a return trip, strong wind battered the Wallowa and she was blown ashore, but not damaged, and was refloated at the next high tide. The Wallowa worked in Alaska for a few more years, moving supply barges, construction materials, and mail to gold mining camps.
In 1904, the Wallowa was purchased by the Puget Sound Mill and Timber Co. and she moved into the next phase of her life, based out of Port Angeles and hauling logs between the Olympic Peninsula and Bellingham for 25 years. She was refitted with a new double-expansion steam engine and a new boiler. The only work done on her after that time was a rebuild of the cabin following a fire in 1927.
The Foss Launch and Tug Company purchased the Wallowa in 1929. Foss was looking to expand their sea-going fleet and operated the Wallowa for several years before leasing it to MGM studios for their film Tugboat Annie. One of the real-life sources for the character of Tugboat Annie is supposedly Foss founder Thea Foss.
Large parts of the movie were filmed in Seattle and used up to 10,000 locals as extras, including then-mayor John F. Dore. The movie was the first major motion picture filmed in Seattle and a big hit with audiences, many of whom were being exposed to images of Seattle and Tacoma for the first time.
The Wallowa was returned to Foss and was refitted with a brand new six-cylinder, 700-horsepower diesel engine, making her the fastest and most powerful tug on the West Coast. At her relaunch, the tug was renamed the Arthur Foss, the president of Foss and oldest son of Thea Foss. From that time on, the Arthur Foss was mostly used to haul cargo down the coast to Oregon and California, or up to Alaska, setting several speed and time records.
In 1938, the Arthur Foss was involved in the construction of two well-known bridges, towing the giant barge Foss No. 46 from the build site of the famous Golden Gate Bridge to the infamous Tacoma Narrows Bridge.
One more iconic bridge would be added to the tug’s resume when she was used to test the anchoring system used on the floating Lacey V. Murrow Memorial Bridge between Seattle and Mercer Island.
A barge with an anchor approximating the strength and durability of the floating bridge was set up by engineers, and the Arthur Foss did laps at full speed, generating a wake of four feet. The captain of the Arthur Foss at that time, Martin Guchee, even put the bow of the tug against the test barge and attempted to move it under full power. When the barge held, all were satisfied that the bridge could hold up to any storm conditions.
The tug was contracted to move a drydock gate to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941, and from there was used to move supplies between Hawaii and Wake Island. The Arthur Foss was scheduled for refueling on December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii, due to the International Dateline), when Captain Oscar Rolstad decided to skip refueling over warnings of an imminent Japanese attack.
They were a few hours away from Wake Island when they got word of the simultaneous attack on Pearl Harbor and Wake Island. The Arthur Foss was the last ship to escape Wake Island before the attack. With limited fuel and a highly visible hull, the crew decided to mix engine grease with white paint and coat the tug in a dark gray color and proceed to Hawaii at a minimum speed to conserve fuel. The Arthur Foss made it to Hawaii on December 28, and the crew were cited for actions above and beyond the call of duty.
Arthur Foss spent the war as YT-335 Dohasan after she was inducted into the U.S. Navy. Dohasan was used for moving supplies between bases on the Hawaiian Islands and helping to build a runway. After the war, the tug returned to Foss in 1947 and was renamed once again Arthur Foss. Following some repair, Arthur Foss was put to work in the Strait of Juan de Fuca hauling bundles of logs. She continued this work for 20 years until 1968. Two years later, the Arthur Foss, at this point over 80 years old, was donated to Northwest Seaport by Foss.
Since then, Arthur Foss has served as a museum ship, and was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1989, the centennial of her launch. She is still owned by Northwest Seaport and can often be found at the Center for Wooden Boats for the family-oriented Tugboat Storytime. To find out more about the boat or visit, head to nwseaport.org or cwb.org.