Women in Transportation History: Thea Foss, Maritime Entrepreneur

Maritime transportation entrepreneur Thea Foss was born in the hamlet of Eidsberg in Norway in 1857. She immigrated to the United States in the early 1880s. Not long after arriving in her new homeland, she married fellow Norwegian immigrant Andreas Oleson in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (The couple subsequently changed their last name to Fossen to distinguish themselves from numerous other Minnesota-based families likewise named Oleson; that new last name was later shortened to Foss.)

By 1889, Thea and Andreas had moved to Tacoma, Washington, and built a home on logs — a sort of houseboat — in the harbor there. While Andreas (eventually known instead as Andrew) went away for long periods of time to earn a living through carpentry work, Thea stayed home with their children.

A whole new world of economic opportunity opened for her one day, however, when she bought a boat for five dollars from an exasperated fisherman who wasn’t having any success making a living out on the water. Thea subsequently repainted the boat and sold it for a profit, and soon found herself purchasing similar boats for equally small amounts of money and likewise selling those boats for a profit. This marked the start of her shipping business.

With the money she made, Thea eventually had her own fleet of vessels. These vessels initially included four rowboats that she rented at any time of the day. She routinely conducted her business on the waterfront porch of her home, and Andrew gave up carpentry work to help repair and maintain her ready-for-hire rowboats. Thea’s fleet quickly mushroomed to more than 200 rowboats, and she started purchasing larger vessels for transporting people and supplies to work areas that were generally inaccessible during high tides.

After acquiring contracts to haul brush and lumber via the waterways in and around Washington, Thea began purchasing tugboats for her business. Her ever-expanding business, which was formally named Foss Launch and Tug Company in 1904, ultimately became one of the largest maritime enterprises in the western United States.

Thea died in Tacoma in 1927 on the day before her 70th birthday. Just a few years later, Norman Reilly Raine used her as the inspiration for his fictional character “Tugboat Annie” in a series of stories that he began writing for the Saturday Evening Post. Tugboat Annie achieved an additional measure of fame by being featured in several movies, including a 1933 box-office hit starring Marie Dressler as that character, and a 1950s Canadian TV series. Foss has also been immortalized through a waterway in Tacoma’s industrial area that was named after her.

For more information on Thea Foss, please check out http://www.historylink.org/File/20706.

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