Special thanks to the late John W. Hough, maritime historian for his research and insights.

The steam tug ELF was built in 1902 for Olson Towing Company by the highly-respected Tacoma shipyard Crawford and Reid.  She towed logs, barges, and did salvage work living up to her name.  Her crew quickly earned a reputation as one that had fun together, and that often played pranks on other crews.

Tug ELF, Tacoma (no date). Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society and Mike Skalley

In 1916, she was sold to Foss Launch and Tug Company, with two other Olson boats, the Olympian and the Echo.  This transaction marked Foss Company’s change from a launch enterprise to a true tug and towing company, owning as many as 70 tugs in its heyday.  The company name changed from Foss Launch to Foss Launch and Tug and today is known as Foss Maritime.

Tug ELF Hauling The Pansa Through the Thea Foss Waterway (AKA City Waterway). Marvin Boland Photographer

In the early 20th Century, Crawford and Reid was the ‘gold standard” among Puget Sound shipyards.  Their vessels were known for their speed and sturdy structure.  They built many tugs, but were primarily known for their passenger steamers, the best of the “Mosquito Fleet.”  If you wanted a faster boat, you went to Crawford and Reid on Commencement Bay.

ELF was powered by a D386 Caterpillar Diesel engine generating 360 horsepower.  She was 63 feet long, with a beam of 15.9 feet and a 6.5 foot draft.

Foss No. 15 on the Lake Washington Ship Canal

After Foss purchased and renamed her, she continued her dependable service for several decades as Foss #15 until her resale to Olson Towing.  She was restored to her original name. ELF, and later sold to Tate Towing, who renamed her Karlyn.  Sold again and renamed Skookum Cache, she worked on the construction of the submarine base at Naval Station Bangor, on Hood Canal.

On August 16, 1989, she was acquired by Karen and Earl Van Diest of Tacoma and the name ELF was restored. That same year, ELF had the honor as the Olympia Harbor Days Logo Boat (aka Flagship), the oldest vessel that had participated the prior year and had not been selected before. The same criteria are still used today.  This was the same year that Foss Maritime Company celebrated their centennial as part of the statewide Washington Centennial of Statehood Celebration.

Tug Elf, Olympia Harbor Days 1988, Photo Courtesy Karla Fowler

ELF’s involvement in Olympia Harbor Days (OHD) and its vintage tug races was extensive.  She was a frequent participant and won her class race in 2002. Her participation in tug racing began long before OHD. She raced other tugs on April 24, 1938, at the Tacoma Marine Carnival (Marfest) near Point Defiance Park. A photo of ELF at this carnival while she was named Foss # 15 appears in the late Mike Stork’s excellent history of Foss, “Foss Maritime Company,” (on page 70).

Foss #15 (Elf) Tacoma Marfest 1938.  Photo courtesy of the Mike Stork Collection

The tug continued towing until January 2014 when she inexplicably sank near West Vancouver, B.C. while towing a barge.  ELF sank in 360 feet of water in Queen Charlotte Channel near Passage Islands off Point Atkinson and the West Vancouver Park light, at the mouth of Burrard Inlet.  There are no plans to raise her.  To learn more on her sinking please visit squamishchief.comOlympia Harbor Days regrets her sinking and her absence from the festival.

Sources:  Crawford and Reid by John W. Hough, Sea Chest Magazine, 2010.  www.tugboatinformation.com, by Craig Verrastro, 2019.  Foss Maritime Company by Mike Stork, Arcadia Publishing Co. 2007.  Conversations with Michael Skalley, author Foss: Ninety Years of Towboating, Superior, 1981.

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. The Tugs at the Capital City, Volume 1, a collection of Tug of the Month stories was published in 2018. He lectures frequently ashore and afloat, and narrates the OHD races each year.  In 1989, as a Washington State Centennial Commissioner, he chaired the Commission’s Maritime Committee.  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 since 1974.  All Tug of the Month stories can be found at www.harbordays.com/blog.   For festival information, see www.HarborDays.com, or on Facebook@OlympiaHarborDays.  Questions to Executive Director Carol Riley at info@harbordays.com.