A rowboat rental service founded in Tacoma by Thea Foss in 1889 and developed by her husband and relatives over the next hundred years became Foss Maritime, the largest tug and towing operation on the West Coast. Foss, an immigrant from Norway, was an essential part of the business until her death in 1927, and lives on as the namesake of the Thea Foss Waterway on Tacoma's Commencement Bay waterfront and the Thea Foss Lodge of the Daughters of Norway in Port Townsend, and as the inspiration for stories, movies, and theater productions from the 1930s into the twenty-first century.
A Mind of Her Own
Thea Christiansen Foss was born June 8, 1857, in the hamlet of Eidsberg, Norway, south of Christiania (now Oslo). She was one of eight siblings. She left school at 14 and soon after moved to Christiania to work and help family members already living there. In her late teens, while staying with her older sister Julia, she met Julia's brother-in-law Andreas Oleson (1855-1937) on one of his shore visits. Oleson, born in the even smaller community of Skirfoss, had gone to sea at 17 and become a ship's carpenter. The two young people shared a self-reliant attitude and a desire for adventure, and it didn't take long for them to decide to marry.
They agreed to start their life together in the United States. Andreas left first, in 1878 (some sources say 1875), to establish a home and raise money for Thea's passage. Landing in Canada and heading to St. Paul, Minnesota, which was a center for Norwegian immigrants, he went to work as a carpenter. He scraped up the money for her ticket, sent it back across the ocean and settled down to wait. When the day came, he went to the train station to meet his fiancée and instead saw his brother Iver (1858-1906). Thea had given the money to him. Andreas went back to work, sent another packet of cash, and was greeted months later by his sister Kristina (1860-1940). Thea had decided to earn her own way (the accounts do not mention whether Andreas knew of her decision) by working as a housekeeper. Thea herself showed up in 1881, and the couple promptly married in a Lutheran church in St. Paul.
West to the Waterfront
The Olesons spent the next eight years in the city. Too far from Great Lakes to pursue his love of ships and shipbuilding, Andreas worked as a house carpenter, raising money to bring over two more of his seven siblings -- Peter and Mina -- and providing for his growing family. Thea and Andreas's son Arthur (1885-1964) was born in St. Paul, followed by Wedell (1887-1955), and Lillian (1889-1914). Another daughter, Lilly Marie, was born during that period and died at age four. They changed their last name to Fossen, to distinguish themselves from the many other sons of Ole in St. Paul. Fossen means waterfall, a nod to Andreas's hometown of Skirfoss, which is the site of a nearby rapids. They later shortened Fossen to Foss, "a fortunate decision as it would be a stronger sounding name when Foss became synonymous with worldwide towing and identified with a large fleet of tugboats" (Skalley, 8). Along the way, Andreas also became Andrew.
Andrew's health suffered in the Upper Midwest winters and he missed the sea, so the Fosses decided to move to Tacoma in Pierce County in what was then Washington Territory, another gathering place for emigrant Norwegians. Andrew went first in 1888, earning his way across country as a railroad carpenter. Thea, who was pregnant when he left, followed after Lillian's birth in the spring of 1889. Sooty and exhausted after several days on the rails, she and the children arrived at the Villard train station, the less-impressive predecessor to Tacoma's Union Station just above Pacific Avenue, and disembarked in the rain. Andrew was there to meet the baby daughter he had never seen and to escort them to the houseboat he had built at the base of 12th Avenue, made with driftwood and scavenged timbers. He was a skilled carpenter with an eye toward practical design, but the lodgings still had to be a shock.
"What Thea walked into was a virtual copy of the space she had just left after a week's travel. It was a wood frame box about the size of a boxcar. The furniture that wasn't wood was upholstered in leather with excelsior stuffing. In one corner was a coal burning potbelly stove and at the other end was a closet with a hole opening right into the water. Under her feet the whole room moved. Andrew lit an oil lamp on the table and Thea found the one completely new thing in the room -- a bed. She remembered sleeping for a very long time" (Sullivan).
Buying a Boat
The first months in Tacoma were inauspicious. Thea Foss had a lifelong fear of water, exacerbated by the allure it held for her toddlers, and soon after arriving at her floating home she contracted a dangerous case of typhoid pneumonia. She was bedridden for more than two months, while a frightened Andrew cared for her and the children and a sympathetic doctor provided treatment without charge. Once she was recovered enough to manage a household with three children under six and no running water, Andrew left for two months to build a house on Henderson Bay west of Tacoma near Purdy.
While he was gone Thea bought a rowboat from a disgruntled fisherman for $5. She cleaned it up, painted it white with green trim, and sold it for double her money. By the time Andrew returned home she had a small fleet of rowboats and $41, most of it from renting them out, for 50 cents a day, to "fishermen, duck hunters, picnickers, and workers requiring rides to sawmills inaccessible by land during high tides" ("Thea Foss launches ..."). Andrew was happy enough to trade house carpentry for boat building, and the Foss family business was born.
Shortly thereafter, the city of Tacoma arranged to channel and divert the Puyallup River in order to dredge and fill in part of the harbor on Commencement Bay for industrial development. This displaced the Fosses, and they moved their houseboat and growing business to "Hallelujah Harbor," later known as the Wheeler-Osgood Waterway.
By the time their last child, Henry (1891-1986), was born, the roster of Foss rowboats had reached more than 200, and the family was ready to move again. At the foot of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge, the Fosses constructed a two-story building with boat storage below, a three-room family home above, and the "Always Ready" slogan, coined by Thea, painted on the wall facing the harbor. For the first time since coming to Tacoma, Thea had running water, a faucet outside the front door.
The original business renting rowboats for fishing and recreation widened to serve the growing ship traffic in Commencement Bay. Looking back on this period from 1966, at his retirement as the company president at age 75, Henry Foss remembered the diversification of commerce on Commencement Bay, with ships carrying coal, wheat, and lumber coming and going from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. The traffic in the harbor, and at her dock, and at her store, functioned as an education in international commerce:
"What this really meant to one Mother Foss was to put her into contact with a multitude of business men who were continually coming and going, and it was her ability to find a common ground with all these divergent business men and captains who gave her great prominence in those days ... She did this with an aplomb that would do credit to a diplomat" (Henry Foss, 1-2).
Henry attributed much of her success to the ever-present "friendly cup of coffee" in her kitchen.
"There was always time for a chat; there was always the opportunity to visit, and so Mother Foss did take advantage of these occasions to become acquainted with the ways of life that gave her the opportunity to learn leadership, and she did take command of that part of our family life and the business" (Henry Foss, 2).
Andrew's brothers, Iver and Peter, joined him in boat design and construction while Thea ran the household, organized supplies for their deliveries to ships at harbor, and guided the business into new avenues as the Tacoma waterfront developed. Henry later recalled, "Often I remember her struggling with a problem ... She would ponder for a short time, her head in her hands, and inevitably she would come up with an acceptable answer that was practical" (Henry Foss, 3).
The Foss children grew up in the business. In the rowboat days, according to longtime Foss employee Michael Skalley, "they were charged with bailing out the boats and keeping them clean and ready to go. One compensation, they collected all the herring bait left in the boats and resold it the next day to the new crop of fishermen. Some of the skiffs were equipped with sail and the boys gave instruction on how to use it" (Skalley, 12). The children also helped with home chores -- chopping wood, preparing kindling, and collecting wheat spilled from grain cars, which Thea soaked and boiled to make a gruel "with a few cinders included for roughage" (Skalley, 13). Henry, as the youngest, spent more time with his mother helping with small chores. One of Thea's few indulgences was her hair. She would relax by having Henry comb it out for her. He recalled that he was "not too bad at combing and braiding that long hair, and I often allowed the long hair to hang down to her waist ... tying a little ribbon on the end of it" (Henry Foss, 4).
As the both the family and the business grew, Thea Foss's cooking responsibilities expanded. The family built a boarding house for employees next to their own home, filling it with fellow Norwegians, and Thea and her daughter Lillian cooked for as many as 30 workers a day.
"Never was she more happy than when in her kitchen," Henry remembered, noting that she could make "a meal in a minute" or for special occasions "spend all morning delving into the many concoctions and coming up with as fine a meal as any French Chef could possibly achieve" (Henry Foss, 5). She was particularly known for her skill with Norwegian pastries.
Thea's generosity extended beyond family and business. When the Panic of 1893 gripped Tacoma, with bank closures and layoffs happening almost daily, a Swedish immigrant carpenter named John Fyrk drank up his final paycheck and then hung himself behind the saloon that had his money. His wife, Matilda, and their three young children were left destitute, with no resources but some chickens and Matilda's friendship with Thea. The Fosses took them in to live with them at the boathouse.
When the vogue for recreational rowing faded, due in part to the popularity of bicycles on the expanding miles of paved -- or at least graded -- roads, Thea's plans and Andrew's boat designs adapted to the change. They began making deliveries to ships at anchor. They could bring groceries and marine supplies out to the ships and bring crew in for shore leave. They could ferry workers to mills accessible only by water at high tide. It was time to move to motorized craft.
Their first powerboat was the two-horsepower naptha-fueled launch Hope, used to deliver supplies to and from ships in Commencement Bay. Marine traffic was increasing, with cargo ships coming in from Japan and China as well as American and European ports. The Foss boys arranged to have a telegraph sent when a ship left Port Townsend (until 1911 the U.S. Customs Port of Entry for Puget Sound) heading down the Sound, and once they had motor launches at their disposal, would sometimes travel all the way to Port Townsend to be the first to greet the ship. They typically would pull alongside with a free box of apples or other local produce and make their sales pitch.
Well aware from their close-up view of their customers that not everyone was skilled enough to negotiate the tides and currents, Arthur and Wedell Foss set up a rescue business, scanning the harbor with a telescope and motoring out to help hobby boaters who had lost their way or lost control. Foss customers were not charged. Others paid 25 cents per rescue. Michael Skalley said the brothers "were especially solicitous of young couples, becalmed and in danger of incurring the ire of parents by not returning before dark" (Skalley, 13).
Thea continued buying and selling boats, while diversifying into other aspects of business. The family built a store next to their home and boathouse that supplied ships and their crews, while a garden, some 40 chickens, a pair of pigs, and a milk cow helped feed the workers who bedded and boarded with them and guaranteed that Thea's days started early and ended late. Thea and Andrew smoothed the way for dozens of immigrants, providing employment, explaining American customs, and helping them prepare for citizenship exams.
An Eye to the Future
As the children moved into their teens, they began to transition from chores to more official roles in the business. Arthur, the oldest son, finished eighth grade and left school to work full time. By 13, he had a government contract to deliver mail by launch from Tacoma to Seattle. Wedell and Henry were deputized to train for management duties. Wedell studied law at the University of Washington and Henry took business classes at Stanford. Lillian, a graduate of Stadium High School, worked with Thea in the store, boardinghouse, and kitchen.
In 1906, the Fosses moved to 400 Dock Street, near the mouth of the waterway that would later be named for Thea Foss. With her children needing less time, and staff helping in the store and boarding house, Thea expanded into community work. Unlike many prosperous Tacoma matrons, she did not court publicity or pay much attention to appearance. Henry recalled that she was generally serious in demeanor and preoccupied with the next set of plans and chores. "Sometimes she was a little careless in the ordinary niceties" (Henry Foss, 4).
Thea Foss stayed out of the local society pages except for the occasional mention related to the Daughters of Norway. In 1907 she became the founding secretary of the group's Embla Lodge No. 2 in Tacoma. The Thea Foss Lodge No. 45 of Daughters of Norway in Port Townsend, founded in 2004, was named for her. Later Foss helped raise the funds to build Normanna Hall in Tacoma's Hilltop neighborhood, which opened in 1922 and in 2018 still housed the city's Sons of Norway Lodge.
Although she was better known for actions than for words, Foss kept a diary in which she recorded more personal beliefs as well as daily events. In an entry on January 19, 1907, she wrote that "the law imprinted in all men's hearts is to love one another. I will look to the whole world as my Country and all men as my brothers. We are made for cooperation and to act against one another is to act contrary to nature" (Bragg, 145-146). It was a credo she shared with Andrew. When he turned his attention to tugboat design, creating a teardrop-shaped underbody and balanced rudder that excelled when towing log booms and is still used a century later, he declined to patent his designs despite their competitive advantage. He said his goal was the common good.
In the 1910s, the family moved uptown away from the waterfront ("like other people," wrote Henry), buying an entire block at 25th and Cheyenne streets. The pleasure of less-cramped surroundings, big enough to accommodate a growing number of nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, was dimmed by Lillian's death, from tuberculosis, in 1914. Thea had delighted in the company of her one surviving daughter, and Henry said of his mother after Lillian's death, "I really feel that from here on there did not seem to be much to live for" (Henry Foss, 7).
Thea's death, on June 7, 1927, the day before her 70th birthday, was followed by one of the biggest funerals ever seen in Tacoma. A water parade of Foss vessels with their flags at half mast motored along the City Waterway, which now bears her name. Thea Foss's legacy is carried on in her family, her business, and the appeal of her story. The business, though no longer family-owned after it was 1987 sold to Saltchuck Resources, kept the Foss name and in 2018 was the largest tug operation on the West Coast.
A few years after Thea Foss's death, a series of stories in the Saturday Evening Post created the legend of Tugboat Annie, supposedly based on her life. The movie Tugboat Annie, filmed partly in Seattle in 1933, was based on these magazine pieces by Norman Reilly Raine (1894-1971). He began writing his Saturday Evening Post Annie stories in 1931 during a brief stint as a writing instructor at the University of Washington. Thea's story was "a picturesque tradition on the waterfront" in 1931, Raine said in an interview some years later:
"So she came to my mind when, as a lecturer at the University of Washington, I decided to write about a woman tugboat captain. Knocking around to get tugboat atmosphere I met Thea's son, Wedell Foss, one of the heads of the Foss Launch and Tugboat Company. He turned out to be a great biographer. He explained that he not only wanted to honor his mother, but to make the public know about tugboats and Puget Sound. He succeeded in doing so through me" ("Tugboat Annie Sails Again ...").
The Tugboat Annie character, an outspoken captain of her own ship, had few characteristics in common with the real-life Thea Foss, who was soft-spoken, reserved, and uncomfortable afloat. Raine's Annie did not resemble Thea "either in appearance, manner, attitude, action, position, or philosophy" (Skalley, 24). However, both Annie and her inspiration modeled an equality for women rarely seen in the businesses and waterfronts of the day. Tugboat Annie was followed by Tugboat Annie Sails Again, featuring Ronald Reagan (1911-2004), in 1940, and Captain Tugboat Annie in 1945.
Foss boats were by tradition named for members of the family, and there was eventually a Thea Foss but, true to her preference for privacy, it was not till long after her death. In 1950 the company bought a 120-foot yacht, originally built in 1930 for John Barrymore and Delores Costello, and named it for the founder. Fittingly, it was used as a company hospitality boat and always had hot coffee ready.
The Tugboat Annie series was the best-known take on Thea Foss's life, but it was not the last or the closest to her actual character and experience. In 2006, Nancy Bourne Haley of Tacoma and Lucy Ostrander of Bainbridge Island released Finding Thea, a documentary film covering her life. Haley said of Foss: "She was definitely a woman before her time, a feminist ... I'm sure Andrew Foss was a lovely man, but it was her loving, creative, motherly spirit that brought substance to their early success" (Ponnekanti).
Finding Thea won the Best Local Documentary award at the Tacoma Film Festival and a Cine Golden Eagle award for originality and storytelling. It was later shown in Foss's hometown of Eidsberg and then, in 2009, on Norwegian state television. It caught the attention of Kristin Lyhmann (b. 1943), a Norwegian playwright. Lyhmann said:
"We all have somebody in the family that went to the U.S., mostly in the Midwest or Seattle ... Nearly 30,000 left Norway every year ... but not so many of our women became entrepreneurs ... The thing about Thea is that she came from the poorest, grayest, dirtiest Norway ... and said, 'Where am I? What can I do?'" (Ponnekanti).
Lyhmann's play Det andre landet (The Other Country) was shown in Norway as part of her annual outdoor-theater festival, with Bourne Haley and Thea Foss's great-granddaughter Leslie Foss Johnson of Mount Vernon, Skagit County, in attendance. Then in 2017 an English-language version of the play ran for five sold-out performances at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma. That production in turn was videotaped and shown at the city's Blue Mouse Theatre on May 17, 2018, as a benefit for the Tacoma Historical Society.
As Haley put it, "this story just kind of lives on -- it doesn't seem to go away" (Ponnekanti).