Steam whistles echo off Tacoma waterfront once again

The high-pitched whistles of steam engines bounced off the shore of the Thea Foss Waterway Saturday as four steam-powered boats ferried visitors, demonstrating how people used to get around South Puget Sound before roads connected communities.

Significantly smaller than the fleet of steam-powered ferries and cargo ships known as the Mosquito Fleet that once cruised the Sound, the group of fiberglass and wooden hulled boats were captained by steam-power enthusiasts who are members of the Northwest Steam Society. They were at the Tacoma waterfront at the request of the Foss Waterway Seaport, which offered dock space in front of the museum for the boats to tie up.

“Some people really love us and others don’t,” said John Hope, president of the Northwest Steam Society. “Some like the noise, others don’t.”

Hope, who lives on Lake Washington in Seattle, brought his 103-year-old, wooden hull Vital Spark to the event. He acquired the boat from another member of the society who was no longer able to operate it. The quaint vessel boasts an awning, cushioned seats in the stern and wooden benches in the bow. But what sets it apart from other steam-powered boats is the Windermere Kettle fastened to the front of the steam-powered engine.

“We can boil a gallon and a quarter of water in 20 seconds,” Hope boasted.

A Brit, one might think Hope would serve high tea aboard the vessel, but he’s been in the States long enough that he prefers coffee, he joked. The kettle is a nod to his heritage, and the fact that England is the heart of where steam started.

Most of the steam boats on the water Saturday are kept out of the water when they’re not being used. They’re small enough to be put on a trailer, but large enough to hold eight or more adults. Their owners may get on the water only six to 10 times a year, but their love for steam-powered machines is year-round.

Hope grew up with an uncle and grandfather who worked with steam-powered machinery. He always wanted to build a steam boat once he retired. When he finally left Boeing as the director of flight operations engineers, he realized it was easier to buy a steam boat than build one from scratch. Being part of the Northwest Steam Society allows members to connect with others who love steam-powered machinery. They also share maintenance tips and tricks with each other, he said.

“When you have an old steam boat you can’t go to West Marine,” to get parts, Hope said. “Between us, we can make anything.”

Lopez Island resident Mike Colyar had his boat Folly on the water Saturday. Loading the boiler with chunks of cedar from his neighbor’s deck, Colyar took Puyallup residents Greg and Heather Skinner and 3-year-old daughter Emma for a cruise.

“That was really special,” Heather Skinner said after disembarking from Folly. “I just wanted to see them go.”

Taking people out and talking about steam is what Colyar loves best about the boat, he said. Then he added “and tooting the whistle.”

Wesley Wenhardt, executive director of the Foss Waterway Seaport, also was along the water Saturday to see the boats. The seaport asked the boats to come for its theme weekends that take information from the museum and make it hands-on for the public.

“Our goal is to reconnect and reunite people with the waterfront,” Wenhardt said.