International Women’s Day, a global celebration of the economic, political and social achievements of women, began on March 8, 1911. Women’s History Month is a celebration of women’s contributions to history, culture and society and has been observed annually in March in the United States since 1987.
To help celebrate Women’s History Month, FreightWaves Classics will continue to profile a number of women who made contributions to transportation during the month of March.
In 1899, Thea Foss, a Norwegian immigrant, began a rowboat rental business in Tacoma, Washington. Over the next 120 years, the company was developed by her husband and relatives and grew into the Foss Maritime Company, which is now the largest tugboat and towing operation on the West Coast.
Thea Christiansen Foss was born June 8, 1857, in the village of Eidsberg, Norway, south of what is now Oslo. She moved to Oslo at the age of 14 to work and help members of her family who were already living there. In her late teens, she met her sister Julia’s brother-in-law, Andreas Oleson on one of his shore visits. Oleson had gone to sea at 17 and was a ship’s carpenter. Thea and Andreas shared “a self-reliant attitude and a desire for adventure,” and decided to move to the United States and marry.
Andreas was the first to emigrate (in either 1875 or 1878), to find work, establish a home and raise funds for Thea’s passage. Andreas traveled first to Canada and then to St. Paul, Minnesota, which was home to many Norwegian immigrants. Working as a carpenter, he earned the money for her passage, sent it to Norway and waited for Thea. However, when he went to meet her train, he found his brother Iver instead. Thea had given her passage money to Iver. Andreas continued working, sent more money to Norway, and months later his sister Kristina arrived instead of Thea, who had decided to earn her own money to pay for the passage. She worked as a housekeeper until she had saved enough money for a ticket, and arrived in St. Paul in 1881. Andreas and Thea were then married in a Lutheran church in St. Paul.
The Olesons lived in St. Paul for eight years. However, St. Paul was too far from the Great Lakes; Andreas could not work on, or build, ships. Instead, he worked as a carpenter building houses. He earned enough money to pay for the passage of two more of his siblings and to provide for his growing family.
Thea and Andreas had four children while in St. Paul; Arthur, Wedell and Lillian. Lilly Marie, another daughter, died at the age of four. The family changed its last name to Fossen, to distinguish themselves from the many other Olesons in St. Paul. Fossen means waterfall in Norwegian, and was homage to Andreas’s hometown of Skirfoss. They later shortened Fossen to Foss. Andreas also changed his first name to Andrew.
Tacoma, Washington Territory
The winters in Minnesota were hard on Andrew’s health and he also missed the sea; the Foss family decided to move to Tacoma in what was then the Washington Territory, which also had a large Norwegian population. Andrew left in 1888, working as a railroad carpenter. Thea was pregnant with Lillian when Andrew left. She and her children followed after Lillian’s birth in the spring of 1889.
Andrew met his family at the train station and took them to a houseboat he had built using driftwood and scavenged timbers. The new home was a wood frame box roughly the size of a railroad boxcar.
The first months in Tacoma were difficult. Thea Foss had feared bodies of water throughout her life; moreover, she worried about her small children falling into the water. She contracted typhoid pneumonia and was bedridden for more than two months. Andrew cared for her and the children, and luckily a sympathetic doctor treated Thea without charge. After Thea was out of danger, Andrew left to build a house on Henderson Bay west of Tacoma.
Thea’s first rowboat and the start of a business
While Andrew was gone, Thea purchased a rowboat from a fisherman for $5. She cleaned the boat, painted it white with green trim, and sold it for $10. When Andrew returned home two months later, Thea had a small fleet of rowboats and $41. Most of the nest egg was earned by renting the rowboats for $0.50 per day to “fishermen, duck hunters, picnickers, and workers requiring rides to sawmills inaccessible by land during high tides.” Andrew began building rowboats rather than house carpentry; the Foss family business began.
Soon thereafter, Tacoma displaced the Foss houseboat when it began to divert the Puyallup River to dredge and fill in part of the harbor for industrial development. The family moved their houseboat and growing business to “Hallelujah Harbor” (which became known as Wheeler-Osgood Waterway).
When Henry, the Fosses’ last child, was born in 1891, the Foss fleet numbered more than 200 rowboats, and the family moved again. The family built a two-story building with boat storage below and a three-room family home above at the foot of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge. On the wall facing the harbor, the slogan “Always Ready” (which was Thea’s idea) was painted.
The business grows and evolves
The business of renting rowboats for recreation broadened to serve the growing number of ships using Commencement Bay. In 1966, when Andrew’s and Thea’s son Henry was 75, he retired as the company president. He remembered the diversity on Commencement Bay; ships carrying coal, wheat and lumber came and went to/from Europe, Asia and Latin America. He said, “What this really meant to Mother Foss was to put her into contact with a multitude of businessmen who were continually coming and going, and it was her ability to find a common ground with all these divergent businessmen and captains that gave her great prominence in those days… She did this with an aplomb that would do credit to a diplomat.”
Commenting further, Henry Foss attributed much of his mother’s success to the ever-present “friendly cup of coffee” in the Foss family 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.”
Iver and Peter (Andrew’s brothers) joined him, designing and building boats. Thea managed the “household, organized supplies for their deliveries to ships at harbor, and guided the business into new avenues as the Tacoma waterfront developed.”
The Foss children “grew up in the business.” When the company’s focus was its rowboats, “they were charged with bailing out the boats and keeping them clean and ready to go. One compensation was that they collected all the bait left in the boats and resold it the next day to a new group of fishermen. Some of the skiffs were equipped with sails and the boys gave instruction on how to use them.” 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.”
Thea’s cooking responsibilities grew after the family built a boarding house for employees next door to their own home. Thea and Lillian prepared meals for as many as 30 workers every day.
Thea’s generosity extended beyond family and business. The (financial) Panic of 1893 impacted the entire nation. In Tacoma there were bank closures and layoffs almost daily. An immigrant Swedish carpenter hung himself behind a saloon; his wife and their three young children were left destitute, but the Fosses took them in and they also lived at the boathouse.
The business changes again
As recreational rowing faded in popularity (in part because of the popularity of bicycles), the Foss business had to adapt. The Fosses began delivering supplies to ships at anchor in the harbor. They delivered groceries and marine supplies to the ships and also brought crew members to the docks for shore leave. They also ferried workers to mills that were only accessible by water at high tide.
But they needed to adapt even more; they needed to begin using motorized boats. Their first powerboat was a 2-horsepower launch named Hope, which they used to deliver supplies to and from ships in the bay. As maritime traffic increased, cargo ships from other American ports and Europe were joined by ships from Japan and China.
The Foss boys made an arrangement; they were notified by telegraph when a ship left Port Townsend (which until 1911 was the U.S. Customs Port of Entry for Puget Sound). Once they had motor launches at their disposal, the Foss boys might travel to Port Townsend to greet a ship. Typically they would pull alongside a ship, give a free box of apples or other local produce and make their sales pitch.
Some amateur boaters were not skilled enough to negotiate the tides and currents of the bay. That led Arthur and Wedell to establish a rescue business, motoring to help “hobby boaters” who had lost their way or lost control of their boats. Customers who had rented a boat from Foss were not charged, while others paid $0.25 per rescue.
Meanwhile, Thea continued buying and selling boats. She also diversified into other businesses. The family built a store next to the boathouse and their home that supplied ships and their crews. They also added a garden, 40 chickens, a pair of pigs, and a milk cow that helped feed the workers who lived in the boarding house. Moreover, Thea and Andrew helped dozens of immigrants by providing employment, “explaining American customs, and helping them prepare for citizenship exams.”
Further diversification and helping the community
As the Foss children grew older, they transitioned from chores to larger roles in the family business. Arthur was the oldest son; when he finished eighth grade he left school to work full-time. At the age of 13 he had a government contract to deliver mail by launch from Tacoma to Seattle. Wedell studied law at the University of Washington and Henry studied business at Stanford University. Lillian graduated from high school and worked with Thea in the store, boardinghouse and kitchen.
The Fosses moved again in 1906 to a home near the mouth of a waterway that later was named for Thea Foss. Her children were older and needed less of her time; she also had staff working in the store and boarding house. Therefore, Thea expanded into community work.
Thea became the founding secretary of the Daughters of Norway Embla Lodge No. 2 in Tacoma. Later she helped raise the funds to build Normanna Hall in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, which opened in 1922. The Daughters of Norway Lodge No. 45 in Port Townsend was founded in 2004 and named for Thea.
Foss kept a diary; she recorded personal beliefs and significant daily events. In her January 19, 1907 entry, 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.” Andrew shared Thea’s beliefs; when he designed a tugboat with a “teardrop-shaped underbody and balanced rudder that excelled when towing log booms, he declined to patent his designs despite their competitive advantage. He said his goal was the common good.”
In the 1910s, the family moved away from the waterfront; they bought an entire block at 25th and Cheyenne streets. They had a home that was big enough to accommodate the growing number of nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Unfortunately, Lillian died from tuberculosis in 1914. After her death, Henry wrote, “I really feel that from then on there did not seem to be much [for Thea] to live for.”
Thea’s death and legacy
On June 7, 1927 (the day before her 70th birthday), Thea Foss died. One of the biggest funerals in Tacoma up until that time took place. There was a water parade of Foss vessels (with their flags at half mast) along the City Waterway (which was renamed for Thea).
Traditionally, Foss boats were named for family members. A boat was named for Thea, but not until long after her death. The company bought a 120-foot yacht in 1950 that had been built in 1930 for actor John Barrymore. It was named for Thea, and was used as a company hospitality boat; there was always a pot of hot coffee ready.
Her legacy was in large part her family and those that she helped during her life. The business continued to be family-owned until 1987, when Foss Maritime Company was sold to Saltchuck Resources. Despite the change in ownership, the company kept the Foss name and by 2018 was the largest tug operation on the West Coast.
Thea lives on via the media
In 1931, a series of stories in The Saturday Evening Post created the Tugboat Annie legend, which many believed was based on the life of Thea Foss. The movie “Tugboat Annie,” which was filmed partly in Seattle in 1933, was based on the magazine stories written by Norman Reilly Raine. He began writing them during a brief period as a writing instructor at the University of Washington. Raine said that Thea’s story was “a picturesque tradition on the waterfront.”
Raine recounted in an interview, “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.”
However, Tugboat Annie and Thea Foss were very different. Tugboat Annie was an outspoken captain of her own ship, while Thea Foss was soft-spoken, reserved and uncomfortable afloat. Raine’s Annie “did not resemble Thea either in appearance, manner, attitude, action, position or philosophy.”
But both Tugboat Annie and Thea Foss modeled equality for women rarely seen in the businesses and waterfronts of the day. The “Tugboat Annie” movie spawned two other movies – “Tugboat Annie Sails Again,” in 1940, and “Captain Tugboat Annie” in 1945.
In addition to the Tugboat Annie series, Tacoma’s Nancy Bourne Haley and Lucy Ostrander of nearby Bainbridge Island released “Finding Thea,” a documentary that covered her life. Haley said, “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.”
“Finding Thea” won the Best Local Documentary award at the Tacoma Film Festival as well as a Cine Golden Eagle award for “originality and storytelling.” Later, “Finding Thea” was shown in Thea’s hometown of Eidsberg. It was then broadcast on Norwegian state television in 2009.
The Norwegian broadcast caught the attention of Kristin Lyhmann, a Norwegian playwright. She 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?’”
Lyhmann’s play “Det andre landet” (The Other Country) was shown in Norway as part of an annual outdoor-theater festival. Nancy Bourne Haley and Leslie Foss (the great-granddaughter of Thea Foss) attended the play. This was followed by an English-language version of the play that ran for five sold-out performances at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma in 2017. That production was videotaped and then shown at a benefit for the Tacoma Historical Society in 2018.
As Haley stated, “This story just kind of lives on – it doesn’t seem to go away.”
The author acknowledges and thanks historylink.org for information and images used in this article.