Born in Tacoma: Foss Maritime Co. celebrates 125 years

Gulls wheel, ducks parade, and while standing at the nose of the 106-foot tugboat Henry Foss on a sunny day sailing at the money end of Commencement Bay it is not difficult to imagine the same scene in 1889.

It was late in that long-ago summer that Norway-born Andrew Foss returned to his wife, proud of the $30 he had earned building a house on the Key Peninsula.

Equally proud was Andrew’s wife, Thea, who had earned that much and more renting and selling rowboats from the family float-house on what would become, a century later, Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway.

So began a company that over the following 125 years would become a respected worldwide brand in the shipping industry. Foss tugs have nursed ships and cargo to and from piers from Hawaii to the Arctic, from Dubai to the Russian Far East, from the Gulf of Mexico to the West Coast and back home to Tacoma.

On Thursday Scott Merritt, Foss senior vice president of harbor services, was in Tacoma as part of the company’s recognition of its years in the business. The company also has published a book about its history, “Foss: Building on Our 125-Year Tradition of Innovation and Expertise.”

With fading photographs and current numbers, the book tells a story of victory, defeat and rebirth.

Thea Foss, in front of her boathouse in 1910. (Foss Maritime Co.)

New beginnings

By 1906 the Foss Boat House Co., based at the float house, was advertising itself as the “largest and most complete boat establishment on Puget Sound.”

Thea Foss had been selling and renting those rowboats, and the rowboats led to tenders which would visit various ships in Commencement Bay offering to ferry crew members ashore.

Those tenders led to tugs, with engines now, with barge service added, and Foss soon grew beyond Commencement Bay to eventually serve customers around the world.

The Foss family sold the company to Honolulu’s Dillingham Corp. in 1969, then 18 years later, when Dillingham’s assets were liquidated, the Foss fleet was purchased by a Washington investment group, Totem Resources Corp., which would later become the Seattle-based Saltchuk.

Today, Foss remains a wholly owned subsidiary of Saltchuk – which also owns Interstate Distributor Co., North Star Petroleum, Northern Aviation Services and Tacoma-based TOTE, among other transportation-related enterprises.

In the commemorative book about Foss, Saltchuck founding shareholder Mike Garvey wrote that “no other company in the world matches the scope and depth of skills” found at Foss.

The Foss Boathouse in 1890. (Marvin D. Boland Collection.)
The Foss Boathouse in 1890. (Marvin D. Boland Collection.)

Fame on Film

Giant searchlights spread tunnels of sun-white light through the late-night sky above downtown Tacoma on Aug. 18, 1933.

It was the week when Hollywood came to town, when MGM celebrated the memory of Thea Foss with the premier of “Tugboat Annie” starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery.

Thea had passed five years before, and Dressler’s portrayal did embellish the grit and gumption that led Thea to raise both a family and a company.

Local radio station KVI broadcast the event, and admission to the show at the Roxy – now the Pantages – cost 50 cents, which was later reduced to a quarter.

An ad in a local newspaper of the day touted the opening by boasting: “C’mon Tacoma, it’s your own big affair.”

The Foss tug featured in the film was the Wallowa, temporarily renamed the Narcissus, and Annie sailed from Secoma, a mash-up moniker combining Seattle, where part of the movie was filmed, and Tacoma.

On the Sunday following the premiere, some 30,000 people watched from Stadium Way as the Peter Foss competed in a 1.5-mile Commencement Bay tugboat race against a rival tug, the Capt. O.G. Olson.

It was then that the Peter Foss pulled ahead to win the first Marie Dressler Loving Cup.

A 1940 sequel, “Tugboat Annie Sails Again,” starred Marjorie Rambeau in the role of Thea, with co-stars Jane Wyman, Ronald Reagan and Alan Hale, father of Alan Hale, Jr., who would go on to pilot the ill-fated S.S. Minnow onto the shore of “Gilligan’s Island.”

As Mount Rainier and the cranes of the Pierce County Terminal loom in the background, the tug Henry Foss pulls the huge container ship Ever Hard up the Blair Waterway in Tacoma on Thursday, July 10, 2014. On the shadow side at left, the tug Andrew Foss keeps the ship properly aligned. (Drew Perine, staff photographer.)
As Mount Rainier and the cranes of the Pierce County Terminal loom in the background, the tug Henry Foss pulls the huge container ship Ever Hard up the Blair Waterway in Tacoma on Thursday, July 10, 2014. On the shadow side at left, the tug Andrew Foss keeps the ship properly aligned. (Drew Perine, staff photographer.)

Back in Tacoma

Tacoma natives will recall the giant log booms, the corrals of timber that Foss tugs would haul throughout the Sound. There were the gravel barges also, towed in tandem with long, sagging cables.

Foss was known not only commercially, but also as a community resource. It was a Foss tug that helped raise an airliner that crashed in 1956 off Maury Island. It was a Foss tug, with a shallow draft, that could maneuver better than early Tacoma Fire Department fireboats in battles against waterfront flames.

The float-house was eventually moved from near Dock Street on City Waterway to Salmon Beach, and where the company had risen to enjoy annual revenues of $22.5 million when sold to Dillingham, today Foss can count revenues of about $300 million, according to Merritt.

Along for the ride aboard the Henry Foss in Commencement Bay – and along the Thea Foss Waterway – on that sunny day last week, Merritt cited the company’s commitments.

“What does the customer need now and how can we provide it?” he said.

He noted that Thea and Andrew Foss coined the term “Always Ready” to let customers know that rowboats, tow boats and crews were prepared to respond to calls 24 hours a day.

The motto now for 1,500 employees worldwide promises, as it has since 2007: “Always Safe – Always Ready.”

In 2005, Merritt said, Foss was well on its way to becoming a world-class concern. But there remained only one serious problem.

“We had 63 lost-time injuries,” he said. “We set out a five-year plan, and over the last three years, we’ve had only one lost-time injury per year.”

He continued, “We do a lot of dangerous things, safely. That’s what I’m most proud of.”

The company continues to innovate. As those rowboats gave way to powered tugs, so the power plants are changing. Foss Maritime Co. has added hybrid-powered ships to its fleet of 75 tugs, and hydrogen fuel cells are being considered.

Propulsion technology, once limited to propellers, now includes “cycloidal” units that allow a tug both to turn circles within its own radius and propel a ship, or itself, sideways.

Three Arctic-class tugs are under construction at the Foss Rainier Shipyard, built to serve the petroleum and minerals industries in Alaska.

And meanwhile, the spirit of Thea and Andrew Foss still obtains.

They were Norwegian immigrants, hard-working, strong of friendship. Son Henry kept a cow pastured near Tacoma’s City Hall, then new, and now called “Old City Hall.”

The milk was used to feed the crews down on the waterfront.

The ships Foss serves have since become quite large, hauling cargo that would have overwhelmed earlier harbors and ports. The company has served the U.S. in war, from Wake Island, to Vietnam, to a Cold War that required radar stations be shipped to inhospitably cold places surrounded by violent seas.

So this year, the company has decided to celebrate. But don’t look for any big fancy parties or chest-thumping.

Remember, the company was born of Norwegians.

“You keep it low-key, humble,” said Merritt.

“Our goal is another 125 years.”