Photos by Jonathan Cooper
Refitting an old wooden boat is a powerful statement about her intrinsic worth, regardless of tonnage. To bring one back is to write another chapter in an adventure story that defies an ending. The older the boat, the more inspired the story to which you contribute. When that story grows long enough, it becomes history itself—legend.
Enter America’s oldest wooden tugboat, the Arthur Foss. Built in Portland, Oregon, and launched in 1889, this tug’s tale includes rushing for Klondike gold, becoming a Hollywood movie star and dodging Japanese bombers at Wake Island and Pearl Harbor.
Now owned and managed by the nonprofit Northwest Seaport of Seattle, she has what may become her most consequential chapter before her. If, that is, advocates can complete the multimillion-dollar refit she needs.
“There aren’t many wooden workboats like this, and there aren’t any with this level of history,” says Saxon Bisbee, a marine archaeologist working with Northwest Seaport. “Not only is this boat one of the last of its kind, but it’s been a part of so many huge events of national significance for the U.S., local significance, and even international for some of the WWII things it was in. There’s been legendary people walking the deck of this boat: movie stars, presidents. Ronald Reagan was even aboard during his first career as an actor.”
Bisbee came to be living aboard the Arthur Foss after earning an undergraduate degree in marine biology and then attending the marine archaeology graduate program at East Carolina University in North Carolina.
“My roommate was from this area and kept singing the praises about Northwest Seaport,” Bisbee says, sitting amid black-and-white pictures of the Arthur Foss underway during her working years, and a state declaration announcing Arthur Foss Day. “I’ve been on many ships in the U.S. and in other countries, and I’ve met very few that have this pedigree. It’s astounding it’s not more well-known.”
The Arthur Foss launched as the Wallowa for the Oregon Railway & Navigation Co., to tow tall ships to port across the shoals of the Columbia River Bar. To handle the treacherous waters, the 600-ton Wallowa was built tough by prominent shipwright David Stephenson.
“He is on the record bragging about how the Wallowa was going to be his best work, but this kind of quality was standard back then,” Bisbee says. “They weren’t going for any records of longevity. They just had a job to do.”
In the late 1800s, the recently settled region had a seemingly endless supply of trees that towered 150 to 200 feet tall with 5- to 10-foot-diameter trunks. Shipwrights took one look at this natural resource, often no more than a mile from the yard, and saw boats to be made.
“The boat would’ve been cheap to build with the highest-quality material for wood shipbuilding imaginable,” Bisbee says.
After about 10 years of the boat running the bar on a daily basis, gold was struck near the Klondike River, close to the Yukon-Alaska border. Opportunities for able vessels abounded along the Inside Passage and Alaska. The Arthur Foss worked the narrow waters around Skagway and even established the standard sea route to Nome, Alaska.
“This boat has been in the Bering Sea, around the Aleutians and as far north as Nome,” Bisbee says. “The Wallowa did that several times and came back to Puget Sound more or less permanently in 1904.”
The boat worked lumber and changed hands until 1929, when the Foss Launch and Tug Co. acquired her. Founded by Norwegian immigrants Thea and Andrew Foss, the company would evolve into Foss Maritime, a prominent American shipping company to this day. The Wallowa was renamed the Arthur Foss after the couple’s eldest son, but the tug was expensive. The Fosses took a Hollywood gamble.
“They leased it to MGM Studios, which at that time was making a movie out of a series of stories called Tugboat Annie about tugboating here on Puget Sound,” Bisbee says.
Tugboat Annie was the box office sensation of 1933. The Arthur Foss was not only paid for, but also modernized to 1930s standards. The steam engine was replaced with the current 700-hp diesel engine, and the deckhouse was rebuilt.
“The boat that emerged from that rebuild was a lot sleeker, faster and more powerful,” Bisbee says. “In fact, it was the most powerful tugboat on the West Coast until World War II.”
Now a movie star, the Arthur Foss worked up and down the West Coast, lending its newfound muscle to projects including, indirectly, the Golden Gate Bridge. During World War II, the Foss Company contracted with the military to build bases in the Pacific. Around May 1941, the Arthur Foss transited to Pearl Harbor towing a dry-dock gate for the U.S. Navy.
“We have a picture of the Arthur Foss docked in front of ‘Battleship Row’ in the summer of 1941,” Bisbee says. “From there, they started a regular run from Pearl Harbor to Wake Island, about 2,500 nautical miles from Honolulu. This boat was there on December 8, 1941.”
The Arthur Foss was the last vessel to escape before the Japanese attacked Wake Island, having left port less than 12 hours before the squads of bombers descended. Capt. Oscar Rolstad ordered radio silence, and the white hull was camouflaged with mixed paints and engine grease. The crew even pondered rerouting to Alaska to avoid the plausible scenario of an impending Japanese conquest of Hawaii.
She entered Pearl Harbor with a U.S. Navy scout plane escort on December 28, and Admiral Claude Bloch cited the crew for action beyond the call of duty. The U.S. Navy acquired the Arthur Foss for military service, and she contributed her horsepower to defeat the Japanese.
Little is known about those years, but she returned to the Foss Company after the war in one piece. She readjusted to civilian life just fine, mostly towing log rafts to sawmills around the Olympic Peninsula. To this day, she holds the record for the longest uninterrupted towing service on the Strait of Juan de Fuca: 20 years without a break. She was retired in 1968.
“Believe it or not, that’s the extremely condensed version,” Bisbee says with a chuckle about the tug’s history. “We’re still finding stuff out.”
The Arthur Foss was donated to Northwest Seaport, where she’s served as a museum ship and maritime ambassador for decades. She is a National Historic Landmark, but also now dock-bound and in need of a major refit.
In addition to the inevitable decline brought on with time, other factors threaten her survival.
“The number one thing with any museum stuff is funding,” Bisbee says. “It’s hard to have a steady source of funding, which is extra hard for boats because they demand constant maintenance and a crew.”
For the past five years, Bisbee and his team have been trying to get the boat back up to standard.
“That being said, all we’re doing is maintaining it as best we can,” he says. “But the fundraising for restoration is the biggest challenge, and that hasn’t really been looked at in detail yet. We expect $7 million to $10 million for restoration as things stand currently. Of course, the longer we wait, the more difficult and more expensive restoration becomes.”
He’s optimistic, though, that donors will emerge to help write the next chapter in the Arthur Foss story.
“It’s been around for so long and is so well known,” Bisbee says. “People inherently love tugboats. More people have probably been aboard this tugboat than any other tugboat in the world, and that’s big in itself.”
Humbled by the tugboat’s life, I took a moment to gaze upon the Arthur Foss from the dock. There she bobbed in the water, covered for the rainy Seattle winter months. There I stood, scratching my chin and imagining all the stories she might tell if only she could talk. To bring a tired wood boat back to life is to write another chapter in an adventure that defies an ending. When that story grows long enough, it becomes history itself—legend.
For more information, or to donate to the restoration, contact nwseaport.org.