Wooden tug – workhorse in gold rush, war, movies – may sail again

Apr 3, 2014 11:28 AM
The tug’s wooden hull needs work, especially in the planking along the waterline.

Courtesy L.G. Evans

The tug’s wooden hull needs work, especially in the planking along the waterline.

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Arthur Foss is in great shape — for a wooden-hull tug built 125 years ago.

Up until the 1960s, the 120-foot, 700-hp tug earned its keep for Foss Maritime hauling log rafts to lumber mills in Puget Sound. With the advent of more powerful, steel-hull vessels, Foss determined that Arthur Foss had become obsolete. On July 28, 1968, Foss took the tug out of service and two years later donated it to a vessel preservation group.

Today, Arthur Foss serves as a museum vessel. In retirement, it rests at a dock on Lake Union in Seattle, under the care of Northwest Seaport, an organization that has assembled a small fleet of historic vessels.

Arthur Foss boasts of a long and colorful history that in many ways embodies the nautical history of the Pacific Northwest. Built in Portland, Ore., it went into service in 1889 as Wallowa, towing large sailing vessels over the Columbia River bar. After gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1896, Wallowa got swept up in the rush to the north. It began taking barges carrying supplies and gear needed by the prospectors and miners in Alaska and the Yukon. It even towed a paddle wheeler to the mouth of the Yukon River in the Bering Sea so that prospectors could ascend the river in their quest for gold.

John Gormley

Otto Loggers, executive director of Northwest Seaport in Seattle, in the wheelhouse of Arthur Foss. Loggers hopes that the ongoing restoration of the 125-year-old tug will allow it to voyage under its own power once more.

When the gold rush ended, the tug began what was to be its primary mission during most of its working life: hauling logs on Puget Sound. But there were two very notable breaks from that work.

First was a stint as a movie star in 1933. In the classic MGM movie Tugboat Annie, which was shot in Seattle, the boat played a central role as Narcissus. Her captain was the Tugboat Annie of the title, played by Marie Dressler. The cast included Wallace Beery and Robert Young.

A decade later, the tug got to play an important role in a real-life drama, World War II. In 1941, the United States had not yet entered the war that was already raging in Europe and China, but military preparations were underway. Arthur Foss was chartered to take materials to the Navy base at Pearl Harbor. When the U.S. was attacked in December, the tug found itself 2,300 miles west of Hawaii on Wake Island. When the Japanese attacked Wake, Arthur Foss barely managed to escape just hours before the island fell.

The primary responsibility for protecting this venerable vessel belongs to Otto Loggers, the executive director of Northwest Seaport. “For its age, she is in extraordinary condition,” Loggers said of the tug. But that does not mean the tug is seaworthy.

As recently as 1984, the tug sailed to Alaska under its own power to mark the 25th anniversary of Alaska’s becoming a state. However, the tug’s current condition would preclude any trip under its own power. “She is not going to be voyaging without her hull being taken care of,” Loggers said.

The hull is sheathed with ironbark, a kind of tropical hardwood, probably Australian eucalyptus. Much of the ironbark is peeling away, especially near the waterline where the nails holding it to the hull have corroded. As a result, some of the most serious rot is in the hull planking along the waterline.

“The plank work is a major priority,” Loggers said, noting that it will probably represent the most expensive part of the restoration.

The boat will have to be dry-docked and the ironbark sheathing removed. Then the exposed planks will be examined for rot. The area around the bow is expected to need the most work. All the sound pieces of ironbark will be salvaged and reapplied once the hull planking has been repaired.

It is something of a wonder that a wooden boat like this that has seen such hard use in its long work history is still afloat. Its current setting is a freshwater lake in an extremely rainy part of the world. The freshwater of the lake means that there are no marine worms boring into its wooden planks and timbers. But the constant rain creates the threat of rot in the woodwork. In fact, during the winter the tug is covered with tarps in a not entirely successful effort to keep the boat’s deck and woodwork dry.

Portions of the wooden deck have deteriorated and need to be removed and replaced. Of particular concern is an area in the bow in the vicinity of the towing bit, where the water tends to pool.

“Creating a watertight deck, that’s the priority here,” Loggers said. In addition, substantial repairs need to be made to the wood of the pilothouse.

The engine, by contrast, is still in operating condition and is in the process of being overhauled. One of the six cylinders has been overhauled and Loggers would like to see the others done at a rate of one per year. But the engine could be used for short voyages even before the overhaul has been completed.

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