Arthur Foss passing Gasworks Park, Seattle (Photo courtesy of LG Evans Marine Images)

The venerable tug ARTHUR FOSS has a long and storied history, encompassing deep sea towing, The Alaska Gold Rush, charter service with the US Navy in World War II, movie stardom, West Coast and Puget Sound towing, service with the Foss Launch and Tug Company (now, Foss Maritime Company), and participation in at least 17 of the annual Olympia Harbor Days festivals from 1981-2000. 

Built in 1889, ARTHUR FOSS is the oldest wooden-hulled tugboat afloat in the USA. In 1986, she was the historic tugboat designated as one of three Washington State Centennial Flagships. That year, under the sponsorship of the State Centennial Commission’s Maritime Committee, she participated in the first of a series of maritime events leading up to the state’s 1989 centennial – the Washington Ships Flotilla to the EXPO ’86 World’s Fair in Vancouver, B.C.  This celebratory cruise up Puget Sound to Vancouver was largely the work of maritime historian Chuck Fowler, a member and past president of the South Sound Maritime Heritage Association and also a member of the Centennial Commission’s Maritime Committee.

ARTHUR FOSS is 120 feet long with a 24-foot beam and draws 15 feet. She displaces 573 tons and is powered by a 700 horsepower Washington Iron works diesel engine, driving her at up to 13 knots. ARTHUR FOSS has been owned by Northwest Seaport of Seattle since 1970. NW Seaport is one of the state’s premier maritime historical foundations. The tug was built in 1889 by Willamette Iron and Steel Company of Portland, Oregon, coinciding with Washington statehood, as the Wallowa. She towed sailing ships across the ever-dangerous Columbia River bar for the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company. In 1898, she towed barges of miners up the Inside Passage to the Klondike Gold Rush. In 1929, Foss, now named Foss Launch and Tug Company, purchased Wallowa to tow log rafts in Puget Sound.

Arthur Foss in dry dock. (Photo courtesy of LG Evans Marine Images)

In 1933, Foss found a very special opportunity for their new tug; movie stardom beckoned. One of Thea’s sons, Wedell, was a good friend of author Norman Reilly Raine, creator of the Tugboat Annie stories, serialized in the Saturday Evening Post beginning in 1931. Hollywood stepped in in 1933 with the classic film Tugboat Annie, starring Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Robert Young and Maureen O’Sullivan. Wedell supplied the ARTHUR FOSS to play the part of Annie’s tug Narcissus. Foss was proud of her role!  A sequel, Tugboat Annie Sails Again, was released in October 1940, and brought then-actor Ronald Reagan for a visit to the tug.

After filming was completed, Foss set about thoroughly rebuilding and modernizing the 40 year-old steam tug. In 1934 it emerged from the shipyard as a powerful diesel tug and was rechristened ARTHUR FOSS.  

Arthur Foss (Photo courtesy of LG Evans Marine Images)

In 1941, ARTHUR FOSS began towing under charter for an airbase contractor, to Pearl Harbor and then towing barges to Wake Island. She escaped the Japanese invasion of the island by only 12 hours on December 8th, 1941 (Dec 7th on this side of the dateline).  [The island fell on December 23rd] The crew quickly painted over the highly-visible white and green Foss colors with a coat of dark gray. The other Foss tug at Wake Island, the Justine Foss, was captured by the Japanese and a number of her crew and contractors aboard were executed by the Japanese. Upon her return to Pearl Harbor, ARTHUR FOSS was cited for “action beyond the call of duty.” She was taken into the US Navy as YT 335, renamed Dohasan from 1942 to 1946. She was returned to Foss, renamed ARTHUR, and towed log rafts in the Strait of Juan de Fuca until 1968.

The intricate helm of Arthur Foss. (Photo courtesy of LG Evans Marine Images)

In 1966, Foss launched a new super tug the company felt worthy of the name Arthur Foss, so the 1889-built tug was renamed Theodore Foss for its final years of operation, only regaining its most famous name after donation to Northwest Seaport in 1970. Over a decade later, Foss, by then owned by the Hawaiian tug firm Dillingham, developed yet another new Arthur Foss, a modern tractor tug, extremely maneuverable, equipped with the German Voith-Schneider cycloidal units, “eggbeater” underwater blades that could change their pitch and send the tug instantly in any direction. She is 106 feet in length, and her engines generated 4000 horsepower at launching. The new tug was christened January 14, 1983.

The Foss Maritime Company renewed its Olympia connection in 1987 when Foss and Dillingham were purchased by the Saltchuk Resources investment group, which also controls Hawaii’s Young Brothers Towing, Aloha Air Freight, and Hawaii Tug and Barge. One of Saltchuk’s board members is a member of a long-time Olympia Family, and its CEO is the son of one of The Evergreen State College’s founding faculty members.

The ARTHUR FOSS’s Olympia Harbor Days participation includes her selection in 1986 as logo tug. It is always a landmark festival when she is able to visit, and we look forward to her return.

Despite being 129 years old and having retired 50 years ago, ARTHUR FOSS is mighty sound and solid. Yet, major restoration work is in the works. In 2017 Northwest Seaport drydocked ARTHUR FOSS for a thorough hull survey and the most intensive below-water maintenance in fifty years. The upper portion of the hull will need to be re-planked and largely reframed. The rest is in remarkably good condition, including the 109ft single-piece keel. Lumber purchasing has begun and major fundraising efforts are launching now. Meanwhile, volunteers and specialists are servicing machinery, overhauling the electrical systems, and keeping the tug’s woodwork and interior well painted and looking sharp.

Arthur Foss at MOHAI in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of LG Evans Marine Images)

Sources:  The Navy In Puget Sound by Cory Graff. 2010, Foss Maritime Company by Mike Stork, 2007, Tugboats on Puget Sound by Chuck Fowler and Capt. Mark Freeman 2009, Tall Ships on Puget Sound by Chuck Fowler and PSMHS, 2007,  Maritime Olympia and South Puget Sound by Les Eldridge and John W. Hough, 2017, all published by Arcadia Publishing.

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

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, or on Facebook @ OlympiaHarborDays.  Questions to Executive Director Carol Riley at