Anne W.: the Career of a Tugboat

  • By Eleanor Boba
  • Posted 2/06/2015
  • Essay 11023
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For more than 50 years, the tugboat Anne W. worked Northwest waters, much of the time hauling barges from a gravel pit in Steilacoom to the shores of Lake Union in Seattle. Before being retired from service in 1967, the tug survived many misadventures, including getting lost on the way to Alaska, sinking in the Ballard locks, and grounding on Vashon Island. This People's History of the Anne W. was written by Eleanor Boba.

Gravel Gertie

They called her "Gravel Gertie," the tug that routinely plied the waters between the Steilacoom gravel pit and the home of Pioneer Sand & Gravel Company on Lake Union. The Anne W. was a fixture going through the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Ballard for decades. When she was retired in 1967, Bob Dorsey, her chief engineer, told a reporter "We've worn a groove in the water."

The Anne W. was built as a steam tug in 1913 in a Portland shipyard. During her career she saw service from the Columbia River to Alaska, before settling in on Puget Sound. In 1927 she was converted from steam to diesel. In a half-century working life she survived two sinkings and one grounding, as well as an unexplained disappearance on an early trip up to Cook Inlet in Alaska.

An item in The Seattle Times, dateline Seward, Alaska, April 15, 1916, refers to that unsolved mystery:

"The steamship Dora arrived from Seldovia last night and says nothing has been heard of the tugs Crosby and Anne W., which, with three barges in tow, sailed from Hoonah April 4, on their way from Seattle to Seward. The tugs and barges had recently been purchased by the Alaskan Engineering Commission for use on Cook Inlet in connection with railroad construction."

Most of the tug's career was in the service of Pioneer Sand & Gravel, whose products were much in demand for building materials: plaster, mortar, and concrete. In fact, she starred in an article about the industry published in The Seattle Times in 1953 and titled "Legacy of the Ice Age." The accompanying photo of the Anne W. pulling two heavily-laden scows was taken by renowned photographer Joseph Scaylea. Similar photos in the collection of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society are attributed to another well-known photographer, Joe Williamson.


The first sinking of the Anne W. occurred in 1944 and in the one of the worst possible locations: the "government locks" (the Hiram M. Chittenden locks in Ballard). The sinking was blamed on an errant log or "deadhead" that pierced her hull during the cycling of the lock. According to The Seattle Times of February 22, 1944:

"The Annie [sic] W., a 100-foot funnel stern towboat, sank so quickly that crew members had barely time to jump from the tug to an adjacent barge before her decks were awash. No feet were wet, but the tug's cook lost his overcoat in the rush."

Needless to say, the tug was also raised from the lock in a huge rush with the assistance of six divers, two slings, and an Army Transport Service crane barge.

A second sinking took place without warning or explanation at her home moorage on Lake Union in 1963. The Pioneer Sand & Gravel Company's plant was located at 901 Fairview Avenue N, approximately where Duke's Chowder House is located in 2015. The watchman had seen nothing amiss on his morning rounds. However:

"About three hours later, men aboard the nearby Navy destroyer escort Whitehurst noticed the stern of the tug was beginning to sink. A party went over in a small boat, but by then the tug was mostly under water" (The Seattle Times, October 26, 1963).

A Foss Launch and Tug Company derrick was pulled into service to raise the sunken tug.

Two years after that incident came the grounding of the Anne W. and two gravel scows on Vashon Island while on the way to Steilacoom. The explanation: The mate had fallen asleep on watch. Skipper Malcolm Lord, who had stood the opposite watch, had himself been asleep below deck. When asked by the Coast Guard examiner why mate Jim Smith hadn't been aware of the grounding, Lord replied "He sleeps like a log, same as I do" (The Seattle Times, March 31, 1965).

Two years later, in 1967, the 54-year-old tug was retired from service. The last mentions of the Anne W. in the newspaper archives are a series of classified ads in 1978 and 1979 offering the tugboat for sale at the price of "$12,500 or offer." The ads note that the boat "needs some repair." No word on any takers.

Tugboat Annie: An Exercise in Disambiguation

In 1933 MGM released a film titled Tugboat Annie starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery. The "Annie" of the title was a tugboat operator (not a boat), portrayed by Dressler and, some believe, based loosely on the life of Thea Foss, who in 1889 in Tacoma founded the company that became Foss Maritime. Although not related to the Anne W., the film has other ties to Puget Sound maritime history. The boat that stars as the fictional Narcissus of the film was played by the tugboat Arthur Foss, now a heritage ship docked at Northwest Seaport. (An exact replica of the tug was made for filming in Hollywood.) A number of scenes were shot among the boats on Lake Union and at the Bell Street Pier in downtown Seattle, called "Secoma" in the film.

As two tugs race against each other to rescue a stranded ferry, a character sums up a central message of the film: "These Puget Sound tugboats sure go after the business!"


The Seattle Times Historic Archives; Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society archives; Internet Movie Database website (

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