Thea Christiansen immigrated to the United States at 24 years old, got married to another Norwegian non-citizen and began having kids who were born citizens. She and husband Andrew came to Tacoma about the time she was learning to read and write English. As naturalized citizens they took the name Foss and lived with four kids in a floating shanty down on the waterfront, about the lowest income neighborhood in the city. Thea and Andrew worked and put their kids in public schools, they collaborated with other immigrants, gave them room and board and helped them learn the language. They built a towboat company and eventually, through hard work and resistance to women on the waterfront, created the legendary Foss Tugboat fleet. Her three sons all graduated from Stanford and built Foss Maritime, a maritime empire on the Pacific Coast. Thea Foss died in 1927 never speaking English as clearly as she did Norwegian. But her immigrant path did not end there.
Thea’s son Weidel told his mother’s story to Norman Reilly Raine a writer for the Saturday Evening Post and he transformed her into the character of Tugboat Annie, just as the Depression arrived in America. In almost 100 Post stories, Tugboat Annie was resourceful, tenacious and bare knuckle tough when she had to be. For a generation of women, many heading households alone and struggling with the nearly non existent employment opportunities for women in the 1930’s, Tugboat Annie was a hero and role model. She could outsmart her nemesis, Captain Bullwinkle, at every turn and if necessary she could role up her sleeve and sock a brutish chin that deserved it.
In the late 1930’s and 40’s the fictional Tugboat Annie was played in the movies by Marie Dressler (Tugboat Annie, 1933) Marjorie Rambeau (Tugboat Annie Sails Again, 1940) and Jane Darwell (Captian Tugboat Annie, 1945). Ms. Darwell also played the role of Ma Joad in the film version of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, another immigrant moving her family on a one way journey to a better place.
The photographer Dorthea Lange was drawn to the immigrant path during the Depression and particularly the women who, like Thea, understood that it must be thought of as a one way journey. Lange’s iconic immigrant portraits are not about battle glory, patriotic conquests or flag waving but they are about the American story. Dorthea Lange never met Thea Foss, never took her picture or listened to her broken English. But in her images from the Yakima Valley in 1936, there is this photograph of a young immigrant farm worker who was about Thea’s age when she arrived in Tacoma. Here is Thea about 1885 and the anonymous young woman in 1936 and a caption I wrote when I saw it for the first time a few years ago.
Take a moment to look into the face of this beautiful young woman, poised in the soft light that washes the inside of the tent that is her home. She has migrated to the Yakima valley with her family, where the long harvest season of 1936 provides a meager means of support picking fruit and a glimmer of hope for a better future. She is surrounded by a simple open air kitchen and the most basic of utilitarian possessions , probably everything she and her family own . But there is no defeat or embarrassment in her gaze. She will make the future we live in here today in Washington State.