Tug of the Month: Wallace Foss
The Tug of the Month: Olympia Harbor Days Tug Races and Festival
By Les Eldridge
The long-lived tug WALLACE FOSS was built in 1897 in Tacoma’s ‘Old Town” by Steven Barbare for use in the Klondike Gold Rush. She was originally designed as a passenger vessel and at first christened the “Oscar B.” named for Oscar Blekum of the Blekum Towboat Company. Gordon Newell’s 1960 comprehensive history, “Ships of the Inland Sea” lists her as rebuilt in 1899, from a 63 foot passenger vessel to a 23 ton tug powered, in 1960, by a 225 horsepower Caterpillar Diesel engine. In 1899, she was owned by the Blekum Towboat Company, sold in 1911 to the Thompson and Pearson Company and lay idle in Everett in a hayfield, no less, near the township of Lowell on the Snohomish River. She was bought by Rouse Towing Company in Seattle in 1913, and rechristened “Rouse,” intended as their premier towboat. She was refitted at Ballard Marine Ways in Seattle. Her steam engine was replaced by a “semi-diesel” 100 horsepower engine at that time.
In 1920, the Rouse family sold their towing interests to Foss. WALLACE retained her “Rouse” name until Foss changed their naming policy in 1945, when she was rechristened WALLACE FOSS, for the grandnephew of Andrew and Thea Foss. In the meantime, her “semi-diesel” was replaced with a 110 horsepower Western Enterprise diesel. In 1935, an engine salvaged from the sunken Winona was installed. In 1949, a raised pilot house was installed and a 225 HP Buda diesel installed. In 1959, the “Cat” diesel replaced her Buda engine, the first Caterpillar installed in a Foss tug. She towed sand and gravel and petroleum barges on Puget Sound, Hood Canal and the San Juan Islands until her retirement from Foss 52 years later, in March of 1972.
In 1972, WALLACE FOSS was purchased by GS of Scottsdale, Inc. and home-ported in La Conner, WA. From 1972 to 1990, she was held by a variety of owners. During the 1980s, she was often a participant in the Olympia Harbor Days (OHD) tug races, and in 1988, was named the logo boat for the race and festival of that year. Her classic lines and historic character have helped her win awards as Best in-Show, Best Workboat, Best Restored, Oldest-in-Show, Best Traditional Design, and People’s Choice at numerous boat shows over her retirement years.
In 1996, she was owned by Dave Walker of Juanita, WA. He home-ported her in Kenmore, on Lake Washington, and arranged for her to play a role as the towboat in the centennial reenactment of the Klondike Gold Rush, held in 1997 and the arrival in Seattle of the “Ship of Gold.” It seems appropriate that WALLACE FOSS was able to participate in the one hundred year celebration of the event for which she was originally built. Walker was Commodore of the Classic Yacht Association.
A bit of scandal entered the picture in the early 1990s when her owner at the time, Carla Orcutt of Bainbridge Island, WA, was sentenced for embezzlement. The year 2002 found WALLACE FOSS in San Francisco, and she is currently in Newport, Rhode Island, being offered for sale by her present owner.
WALLACE FOSS underwent a thorough refit in 2012-2014. This included installation of an hydraulic windlass and a Rowe towing bollard. She boasts a remodeled galley, a salon, a modern shower and a five-berth bunk cabin. She is listed as 62 feet length-over-all, with a 16 foot, six-inch beam, and draws eight feet, with a 52,000 dry weight.
This one hundred and twenty-one year-old tug will always be welcome at Olympia Harbor Days. The organizers and staff of OHD are hopeful that she’ll be purchased by a Pacific Northwest buyer, and that she’ll once again be racing on the waters of Olympia’s Budd Inlet on Labor Day weekends.
Sources: Atlantic Yacht and Ship website, Tugboat Info.com, “Ships of the Inland Sea” by Gordon Newell, Binford and Mort, 1960, “Foss Maritime Company” by Mike Stork, Arcadia Publishing, 2007, Foss Maritime Company Centennial Announcement, Tom Van Dawark, President, 1997.
About Les Eldridge: Les is president of the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association and author of a number of maritime histories, a series of novels on the American Civil War at sea, and a book of humorous verse. He lectures frequently ashore and afloat, and narrates the OHD races each year. For more, see EldridgeSeaSaga.com.
Tug of the Month is sponsored by Olympia Harbor Days Tug Boat Races and Festival, an Olympia Kiwanis Club event free to the community. It takes place every Labor Day weekend on the Olympia waterfront. It is in its 45th year. For attendance information, see www.HarborDays.com, or on Facebook @OlympiaHarborDays. Questions to Executive Director Carol Riley at firstname.lastname@example.org.