Wheat Fleet

At the mouth of Thea Foss Waterway, not far from where a surviving section of the legendary “mile long warehouse” has been transformed into the Working Waterfront Museum, there are fragments of a time when sailing ships lined the waterfront. The great wheat ships bound for Asia began calling with the arrival of the railroad in the early 1870’s and by the mid 1880’s were a constant, moving forest of masts on Commencement Bay. Even after steamships were the most common vessels in blue water, wheat was carried by the sailing ships with their empty, engine free hulls and the dependable trade wind driven sailing times across the Pacific. Take note of the width of the Foss Waterway. It was determined by the standard length of the great wheat ships of the Victorian era. They could sail right up to the docks on the city side of the waterway thanks to the prevailing southwestern wind in our harbor and once loaded could keep a line tied at the stern, fill a foresail to pivot the ship in the waterway and then fill the main sails and run downwind out of port with no help from a tug or towboat. Marvelous to imagine that for millennia, until the middle of the 19th Century, the ancient forest came down to the tidelands over most of Tacoma. Then, just 20 years later, buildings covered the hillside and the forest draped in sails began coming and going with the wind and tides.

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