Tacoma museum tells the story of Thea Foss’ legacy
Exploring Puget Sound history along the waterway
Lori Ann Reinhall
The Norwegian American
As a baby boomer girl, I learned what a glass ceiling was early on. When I excelled in my high school journalism class, I was told by my teacher that “it wouldn’t be good choice for a young lady.” I ended up going into language and literature instead. It led me to a wonderful career—and in the end, here I am loving what I do as editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American.
Along the way, I had my role models, and as a daughter of the Pacific Northwest, Thea Foss was one of them. I first learned about Thea in a junior-high Washington state history class.
A Norwegian immigrant to Tacoma in what was then Washington territory in 1888, it is no exaggeration to say that it was Thea’s vision and hard work that built up the tugboat company that eventually became the Seattle-based Foss Maritime Company.
The invincible Thea even became the inspiration for the lead character in the 1933 film Tugboat Annie, although her real character was in many ways quite different.
What I loved most about Thea is that while she was an imaginative entrepreneur and astute businessperson second to none, she also seemed to have been a loving and caring wife, mother, and member of her community. Stories are told of how she could be found in her kitchen cooking up a warm soup for her family and friends, offering them nourishment and support. It has been said that Thea “built the largest tugboat industry in the world with nothing more than her conviction and a pot of coffee.”
So, when I learned that the museum at the Foss Waterway Seaport in Tacoma offered the opportunity for me to learn more about Thea, it was time for a weekend trip to check it out. It was an excursion long overdue, and in the end, proved that you don’t have to travel too far to experience something special.
The museum invites you to explore the region’s “extraordinary maritime heritage,” a lofty invitation that it lives up to. While I came to check out the Thea Foss exhibit, I found that this museum offers just about everything you could hope for if you are interested in Washington state history. It starts with the geological history of the Puget Sound region, the lives of the Indigenous peoples, past and present, the development of Tacoma as a port city and all the infrastructure an industry put in place to make it happen, all the boats specific to the area, from canoes to tugboats and ferries, sea life, and ecology.
None of this is dealt with superficially, yet the museum can be enjoyed regardless if you are planning to spend a couple of hours or an entire day there. It is also museum that will appeal to visitors with different areas of interest and expertise across all age groups.
You can spend time reading and listening to the information offered up, as your curiosity prompts you, or you can simply enjoy the purely tangible aspects of what is being offered up. The latter starts with the experience of being in the restored historical Balfour Dock Building that houses the museum. A sight to behold, it was once one of four massive structures where grain and other goods were stored before being transported from or out to the waterway or via the freight trains that ran on the adjacent railway.
Built in 1900, the structure is a one-of-a-kind beauty that has been enhanced with a dramatic glass wall and intricate bridge truss-style ceilings soaring 55 feet above the exhibit hall floor with direct access to the esplanade on the Thea Foss Waterway. Not just a museum, with its scenic location and its panoramic views of the waterfront, unique architecture, and nautical charm, it is a popular venue for hire, hosting meetings, weddings, and other events.
The space is large enough to house a large number of wooden boats, all painstakingly preserved or replicated down to the last detail. There are the canoes of the Indigenous peoples, the hand-built Foss rowboats from Thea’s time, and other craft that you would have found traveling through Puget Sound throughout the decades. With their superb craftsmanship, they are beautiful to look at, as you might image what it would have been like to travel on the surrounding waters in them.
One exhibit that left a strong impression was a small wooden vessel open to go on board. There schoolchildren (or anyone for that matter) can learn what the various parts of a boat are called, as they are labeled throughout. Growing up with boats, it might be easy to take this all for granted, but the exhibit is a very fun and effective educational experience for landlubbers.
There is, in fact, an entire section of the museum designated as a learning center for children, where they can sit down and engage in structured activities and learn more.This education center is a popular destination for field trips, with “the aim for students to develop an understanding of their environment and the modern issues faced by Puget Sound.” The museum also offers a series of videos online to explore.
And, of course, education doesn’t stop with schoolchildren. I, for one, will have to return to the museum several times to soak in all the information the exhibits have to offer.
There is also the Foss Waterway Heritage Boat Shop dedicated to preserving the techniques of various regional boat builders. There you can see the artistry of wooden boat builders in action, as the museum celebrates Tacoma’s boat-building traditions, past, present and future of boat building.
On a scale of 1 to 5, I give the The Foss Waterway Seaport a 5+ rating. A maritime museum, education facility, and events venue, it offers something for everyone, a worthy tribute to my ever-inspiring role model the intrepid and indelible Thea Foss.
Learn more at fosswaterwayseaport.org.
Photos: Lori Ann Reinhall
This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of The Norwegian American.