All aboard the African Queen!

Well, sorta. This past weekend was the steam event at the Foss Waterway Seaport, in Tacoma, Washington, which sounded like a lot of fun.

Which it was. I knew before I arrived at the museum that they’d done a lot to it since the last time I’d been there, mumble-odd years ago, and they have. The museum is housed in what was once one of the largest wheat warehouses in the world.

An interior view of the wheat warehouse in Tacoma, back in the day when wheat from eastern Washington would arrive by train at the port, to be transferred to clipper ships taking it around the world.  Photo linked to from the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum.

By the time the museum was conceived, the warehouse was falling to ruin, but it’s been extensively remodeled and is now quite the showplace, although you can tell it’s still a work in progress.

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The inside of the Foss Waterway Seaport today.

When I bought my admission ticket Sunday afternoon, the woman handed me a sticker and said, “This will get you a boat ride, too.” I looked around, and asked, “where?” She laughed and told me to go back outside and down the gangway to the dock.

The Foss Waterway Seaport dock.
The Foss Waterway Seaport dock.

So I did. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, warm enough that the breeze off the water of the Thea Foss Waterway felt wonderful.

Three boats were running that afternoon, taking turns giving people a spin out on the water.

One of the two boats I didn't ride in.
One of the two boats I didn’t ride in.
The boat I rode in, The Vital Spark.
The boat I rode in, The Vital Spark.

The name of the boat I rode in was The Vital Spark, and I got to sit right next to the little steam engine, which was cool. I’d never seen one running up close before (I did get to see a steam engine at the Golden Spike National Historic Site earlier this summer, but while I saw the engine, and I saw the locomotive moving down the track from a distance, I didn’t get to see the engine actually working).

The Vital Spark's engine.
The Vital Spark’s engine.

It looked and sounded just like the one in the African Queen, except much cleaner and in better shape. The captain even blew the whistles (there are three of them, in gradation from softest to loudest).

Looking out towards Commencement Bay, from the deck of The Vital Spark.
Looking out towards Commencement Bay, from the deck of The Vital Spark.

We went out to where the Thea Foss Waterway meets Commencement Bay, then turned around and came back.

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The view back towards downtown Tacoma and the 11th Street/Murray Morgan Bridge. Murray Morgan was a local historian who wrote a terrific book about the history of Tacoma and environs, called Puget’s Sound.

And who is Thea Foss, you ask? Well, if you’re old enough, you may have heard of Tugboat Annie. Thea Foss is the real woman Tugboat Annie was — very loosely — based on. Mrs. Foss was a Scandinavian immigrant back in the 19th century who, with her husband, started Foss Maritime, which became the largest tugboat company on the U.S. west coast. The story goes that while Thea’s husband was away from home doing carpentry work, a disgruntled fisherman offered to sell her his boat, and when her husband came home, it turned out she’d made more money with the boat than he had with his carpentry. And so a business was born.

Part of the Foss exhibit in the museum.
Part of the Foss exhibit in the museum.

The museum is well worth a visit if you visit Tacoma. And if you happen to be here on the last weekend in August, see if they’re offering steamboat rides, too!