By Suzanne Norquist
Thea Foss never intended to start a tugboat company. But, despite her fear of water, that's exactly what she did. The company's motto, "Always Ready," describes the personality trait that led her to success. As a fiercely independent young mother, she understood how to meet people's needs. Since she lived with her husband and family on the Tacoma waterway, most of those needs involved boats. This led to the creation of the business known today as the Foss Maritime Company.
Born in 1857 in Eidsberg, Norway, Thea Christiansen Foss left school at age fourteen to help family members. She met and fell in love with her sister's brother-in-law, Andreas Oleson, who later Americanized his name to Andrew Foss. He worked as a ship's carpenter.
The couple decided to move to America and marry. Andrew went ahead and sent funds for her passage. However, Thea refused to let him pay for her travel. Instead, she earned the money as a housekeeper. The couple married in 1881 when she arrived on her own.
After eight years in Minneapolis, Andrew grew tired of the harsh winters, and he missed the sea, so he decided to move the family of five to Washington State. He went ahead and built a houseboat for them to live in. Thea followed on the train eight months later with three children under the age of five.
She arrived at her floating home, a rough wooden structure with a tarpaper roof and sparse furnishings. Seeing her husband's pride, she accepted the conditions as temporary.
Both of her boys fell into the bay on the first day, adding to her fear of water. A fear that never completely left her.
The family had a rough start, with Thea battling Typhoid-pneumonia for several months and relying on the generosity of a local doctor. Then they moved the houseboat to a new pier when the city diverted the waterway. And Andrew had to leave home for a couple of months to take work as a carpenter.
That's when Thea unintentionally started her business. She was gutting fish on her porch when a man arrived in a rowboat. He wanted to sell it for ten dollars. Being prudent, she talked him down to five.
She rented out the rowboat, netting forty dollars before her husband returned with thirty-two dollars he'd earned from his carpentry work. Thus, her business was born.
She rented, bought, and sold boats. The whole family joined the endeavor. Andrew became a shipbuilder with other relatives from the homeland. Her sons cleaned boats and re-sold bait left in the bottoms. They used telescopes to watch for ships in distress and came to their rescue (for a small fee). They also ran a ship-to-shore delivery service.
Her daughter helped in the kitchen, where Thea was “always ready with a friendly cup of coffee.” Her hospitality connected her to all the people in the harbor. As she understood their needs, she found ways to provide, growing her enterprise.
The boys attended college, each learning to serve the business in a different capacity.
When Thea passed in 1927, her funeral procession was the largest ever seen in Tacoma. The Thea Foss Waterway on Tacoma's Commencement Bay commemorates her legacy.
The movie Tugboat Annie, released in 1933, was loosely based on her life. However, the boisterous main character was very different from the real Thea, who was soft-spoken and reserved. In fact, she has been misrepresented in several movie and television endeavors.
The company was eventually sold by the family but still carries the Foss name and history.
She never intended to start an empire. But being "Always Ready" to meet people's needs allowed her to do just that. Thea Foss is a fine example for the modern woman.
" Mending Sarah's Heart" in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah's Heart by Suzanne Norquist
Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn't need anyone, especially her dead husband's partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband's share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?