If there is a moment that breaks your heart in the story of Thea Foss, it has to be her arrival in Tacoma.
In 1888 she and Andrew were living in Minneapolis. They had two little boys, Arthur, three and Wedell, one and about the time Andrew got a great job with the Northern Pacific Railroad they found out she was pregnant. Trouble was Andrew’s new job was in Tacoma so they decided he would head west and Thea would stay with her family in Minnesota and come to Tacoma the next spring with the three kids.
Winter came and went. They exchanged letters and an occasional telegram to plan the trip west and to say it was a girl. They named her Lillian. In April 1889, Thea, with a baby girl in her arms, two boys now 2 and 4, and their baggage took seats on an immigrant train headed west. The passenger cars on the immigrant trains were plain and simple, wooden benches with excelsior filled leather seats, oil lamp sconces for light, a pot belly coal stove for heat and a plank closet near the door for a toilet. The immigrant trains were the lowest priority on the busy transcontinental railroad so they got sidetracked for just about every other train including livestock carriers. Thea, a young mom just 30 with three kids spent five or six days in the car, nursing Lillian, changing diapers and keeping track of the boys.
Finally the train pulled into the Villard Station in Tacoma near where the Prairie Line crosses Pacific Avenue today. Andrew was ecstatic, the boys were unleashed, Lillian was crying and it was raining. Thea was exhausted but very happy to be on solid, motionless ground.
Once the chaos of the station was behind them, Andrew surprised Thea with the news that he had found them a home, in fact he had built it himself. They may have hired a wagon to get there but they could have almost seen the house by just walking down the Prairie Line from 17th to the waterfront below 12th street. There Andrew proudly led the family across a gangplank and opened a door on a boathouse he had constructed from scrap lumber on salvaged logs he found floating on the waterway.
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 pot belly 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.
The boathouse would become Thea’s home for most of the rest or her life. By 1890, she and Andrew had a second floor and balcony added to the floating building. They started a rowboat business that ran from the ground floor of the boathouse and in time they operated small tugboats and mail launches. When the Puyallup River channel was dredged into a waterway and the NP built a mile of waterhouses along the city side, they towed the boathouse north to the mouth of what would one day be Thea Foss Waterway.
By 1902 Foss tugboats served most of the vessels entering Commencement Bay. They ran tows up and down the sound and behind the boathouse they built a bunk house for workers. In 1905 they had the gigantic 97 foot long steam tug Andrew Foss built and by the first World War the Foss tug fleet was the largest on Puget Sound. About 1914 Thea Foss moved into her first dryland home in Tacoma at 25th and Cheyenne after living in the boathouse for more than 20 years. She passed away there in June 1927.
The Foss Launch and Tug Company continued
to operate from the old boathouse at 400 Dock Street even as their maritime enterprise expanded its waterfront operation. When a fire in November 1932 damaged a section of the new boathouse office space, 20 employees boarding in the structure escaped without injury. The Foss company needed more space and found the first seaplane hangar in the Northwest on sale in Seattle. The huge building floated on a scow and was used by Eddie Hubbard, pioneer aviator, to house his aircraft on Lake Union. It was purchased, towed to Tacoma and converted into a new headquarters. The main deck contained the repair shop for tugs and the store for needed provisions. The second deck contained offices, bunk rooms, two apartments and a recreation room for employees.
About 1915 the original boathouse was towed away from the growing Foss complex and taken to Salmon Beach for use as a family cabin. They just couldn’t demolish, or sink, the original 1888 Foss home that Andrew built. Thea and Andrew’s youngest son Henry, who was born in Tacoma, built his home on Day Island so it was an easy row back and forth between the old boathouse and his waterfront home. Henry and his wife Agnes loved the old boathouse where he was born in 1891 and the humble, still floating structure became a favorite place for family gatherings. The steep stairway down to the old boathouse was no obstacle for Thea and Andrew even as they approached their 70’s.
The boathouse stayed at Salmon Beach until the Second World War and then it seems to have either disappeared or dissolved into the improvisational architecture of the old bootlegger’s haunt. Today it is one of Tacoma’s mysteries. What became of Thea’s boathouse? There are no floating houses at Salmon Beach anymore and none of the existing hardscrabble dwelling along the shore look like the historic structure. Was it finally towed away and sunk? Or was it dismantled and the usable parts blended into the little neighborhood? Here are the last three photographs I have seen of the boathouse from Henry Foss. Maybe one of the most historic buildings in the Pacific Northwest still exists-if only in small parts scattered along the shoreline at Salmon Beach. Maybe…..