A woman of substance

Thea Foss helped build Tacoma’s waterway, strengthened her community

Thea Foss

Photo: public domain
Thea Christiansen Foss at her Tacoma boathouse.

Daughters of Norway Thea Foss Lodge, #45
Port Townsend, Wash.

In 1889, a quiet, reserved Norwegian immigrant used profits from a rowboat sale to begin building one of the largest tugboat companies in the United States. This woman, Thea Foss, had an indomitable spirit and the Scandinavian fortitude we all know and appreciate. Our Lodge, #45, is honored to bear her name.

Immigrant story

Thea Christiansen Foss (Kristiansdatter) was born on June 8, 1857, in the hamlet of Eidsberg, Norway, south of Christiania (now Oslo). She was one of eight siblings. She left school at 14 and soon after moved to Christiania to work and help family members already living there. In her late teens, while staying with her older sister Julia, she met Julia’s brother-in-law, Andreas Oleson, on one of his shore visits. Oleson, born in the even smaller community of Skirfoss, had gone to sea at 17 and become a ship’s carpenter. The two young people shared a self-reliant attitude and a desire for adventure, and it didn’t take long for them to decide to marry.

They agreed to start their life together in the United States. Andreas left first in 1878 (some sources say 1875) to establish a home and raise money for Thea’s passage. Landing in Canada and heading to St. Paul, Minn., which was a center for Norwegian immigrants, he went to work as a carpenter. He saved up the money for her ticket, sent it back across the ocean, and settled down to wait. When the day came, he went to the train station to meet his fiancée and instead saw his brother Iver. Thea had given the money to him. Andreas went back to work, sent another packet of cash, and was greeted months later by his sister Kristina. Thea had decided to earn her own way by working as a housekeeper. She showed up in 1881, and the couple promptly married in a Lutheran church in St. Paul.

The Olesons spent the next eight years in the city. Their son Arthur (1885-1964) was born in St. Paul, followed by Wedell (1887-1955), and Lillian (1889-1914). Another daughter, Lilly Marie, was born during that period and died at age 4. They changed their last name to Fossen, to distinguish themselves from the many other “sons of Ole” in St. Paul. They later shortened Fossen to Foss. Along the way, Andreas also became Andrew.

The way west

Andrew’s health suffered in the Upper Midwest winters, and he missed the sea, so the Fosses decided to move to Tacoma in Pierce County in what was then Washington Territory, another gathering place for emigrant Norwegians. Andrew went first in 1888, earning his way across the country as a railroad carpenter. Thea, who was pregnant when he left, followed after Lillian’s birth in the spring of 1889. Sooty and exhausted after several days on the rails, she and the children arrived at the train station and disembarked in the rain. Andrew was there to meet the baby daughter he had never seen and to escort them to the houseboat he had built, made with driftwood and scavenged timbers. He was a skilled carpenter with an eye toward practical design, but the lodgings still had to be a shock.

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 potbelly stove, and at the other end was a water 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 first months in Tacoma were inauspicious. Thea had a lifelong fear of water, exacerbated by the allure it held for her toddlers, and soon after arriving at her floating home she contracted a dangerous case of typhoid pneumonia. She was bedridden for more than two months, while a frightened Andrew cared for her and the children, and a sympathetic doctor provided treatment without charge. Once she was recovered enough to manage a household with three children younger than 6 and no running water, Andrew left for two months to build a house.

Thea Foss

Photo: Marvin D. Boland Collection / Tacoma Public Library
The Foss boathouse was the first boathouse in Tacoma. The 16-foot-by-30-foot structure was built by Andrew Foss to house his growing family. His industrious wife, Thea, began the family business here.

On the waterfront

While he was gone, Thea bought a rowboat from a disgruntled fisherman for $5. She cleaned it up, painted it white with green trim, and sold it for double her money. By the time Andrew returned home, she had a small fleet of rowboats and $41, most of it from renting them out, for 50 cents a day, to fishermen, duck hunters, picnickers, and workers requiring rides to sawmills inaccessible by land during high tides. Andrew was happy enough to trade house carpentry for boat building, and the Foss family business was born.

By the time their last child, Henry (1891-1986), was born, the roster of Foss rowboats had reached more than 200, and the family was ready to move again. The Fosses constructed a two-story building with boat storage below, a three-room family home above, and the “Always Ready” slogan, coined by Thea, painted on the wall facing the harbor. For the first time since coming to Tacoma, Thea had running water, a faucet outside the front door.

The original business renting rowboats for fishing and recreation widened to serve the growing ship traffic in the harbor. This, along with the contact it gave Thea on her dock and at her store, functioned as an education in international commerce. According to her son Henry: “What this really meant to Mother Foss was to put her into contact with a multitude of business men who were continually coming and going, and it was her ability to find a common ground with all these divergent business men and captains who gave her great prominence in those days … She did this with an aplomb that would do credit to a diplomat.” 

Henry attributed much of her success to the ever-present “friendly cup of coffee” in her 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.”

As both the family and the business grew, Thea Foss’s cooking responsibilities expanded. The family built a boarding house for employees next to their own home, filling it with fellow Norwegians, and Thea and her daughter Lillian cooked for as many as 30 workers a day.

“Never was she more happy than when in her kitchen,” Henry remembered, noting that she could make “a meal in a minute” or for special occasions “spend all morning delving into the many concoctions and coming up with as fine a meal as any French Chef could possibly achieve.” She was particularly known for her skill with Norwegian pastries.

Community commitment

Thea’s generosity extended beyond family and business. When the Panic of 1893 gripped Tacoma, with bank closures and layoffs happening almost daily, a Swedish immigrant carpenter drank up his final paycheck and then hanged himself. His wife, Matilda, and their three young children were left destitute, with no resources but some chickens and Matilda’s friendship with Thea. The Foss family took them in to live with them at the boathouse.

When the vogue for recreational rowing faded, due in part to the popularity of bicycles on the expanding miles of paved—or at least graded—roads, Thea’s plans and Andrew’s boat designs adapted to the change. They began making deliveries to ships at anchor. They could bring groceries and marine supplies out to the ships and bring crew in for shore leave. They could ferry workers to mills accessible only by water at high tide. 

Thea continued buying and selling boats, while diversifying into other aspects of business. The family built a store next to their home and a boathouse that supplied ships and their crews. A garden, some 40 chickens, a pair of pigs, and a milk cow helped feed the workers who bedded and boarded with them and guaranteed that Thea’s days started early and ended late. Thea and Andrew smoothed the way for dozens of immigrants, providing employment, explaining American customs, and helping them prepare for citizenship exams.

As the children moved into their teens, needing less of her time, and staff helping in the store and boarding house, Thea expanded into community work. Unlike many prosperous Tacoma matrons, she did not court publicity and stayed out of the local society pages except for the occasional mention related to the Daughters of Norway. In 1907, she became the founding secretary of the group’s Embla Lodge No. 2 in Tacoma. Later Foss helped raise the funds to build the Sons of Norway Normanna Hall in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, which opened in 1922, today still housing the city’s Sons of Norway lodge.

Although she was better known for actions than for words, Foss kept a diary in which she recorded more personal beliefs as well as daily events. In an entry on Jan. 19, 1907, 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.” 

It was a credo she shared with Andrew. When he turned his attention to tugboat design, creating a teardrop-shaped underbody and balanced rudder that excelled when towing log booms and is still used a century later, he declined to patent his designs, despite their competitive advantage. He said his goal was the common good.

Thea’s death, on June 7, 1927, the day before her 70th birthday, was followed by one of the biggest funerals ever seen in Tacoma. A water parade of Foss vessels with their flags at half-mast motored along the City Waterway, which now bears her name. Thea Foss’ legacy is carried on in her family, her business, and the appeal of her story. The business, though no longer family-owned after it was sold to Saltchuck Resources in 1987, kept the Foss name, and in 2018 was the largest tug operation on the West Coast.

This article was based on an entry by Sharon Jordan at historylink.org.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.