In the early 1900s through the 1920s, Grays Harbor was one of the world’s busiest seaports. Longshoremen werer kept busy loading lumber for shipment around the world — shipments that would go nowhere without the pilot tugs that guided the schooners and steamers across the bar at the mouth of Grays Harbor. Of the dozens of tugs that worked the Harbor, one of the most storied was the John Cudahy.
The 123-ton, 90-foot Cudahy, propelled by a 450-horsepower Vulcan steam engine, was built in Ballard in 1900 by E.H. McAllister in a record six months. The $40,000 vessel operated as a cannery tender for the Pacific American Fisheries Company of Bellingham, one of the world’s largest salmon canning operations. In 1903, financial difficulties forced an arm of the company, Pacific Coast Packing, into receivership and the Cudahy was put up for sale.
When word of the receivership reached the Grays Harbor Tugboat Company, Charles R. Wilson was dispatched north to appraise her for use as a sister-ship to the tug Daring. His glowing report prompted the tugboat company to purchase the nearly new John Cudahy at a rock-bottom price of $15,000. The boat was put in dry-dock in Seattle where she was recaulked and painted before heading to her new homeport. Within a year the company had added two more vessels, Printer and Traveler, to its fleet.
Upon her arrival in Aberdeen in February 1905, the Cudahy was met by a large crowd and was as trim a craft as had been seen in Aberdeen for a long time.
She had the appearance of a steam yacht, with the lines of her bow painted in clean white and a large yellow funnel and two masts.
The vessel was taken directly to the marine railway at the Lindstrom shipyard where the wheelhouse was removed and taken to the home of shipyard owner and Aberdeen mayor, John Lindstrom, for use as a playhouse for his children. (Years later a tree crashed down, splitting the wheelhouse in half. The front portion was removed and eventually made its way to the muddy parking lot behind Bronco Tesia’s Liberty Tavern in South Aberdeen. In the early 1980s it was moved to the Aberdeen Museum of History where it was restored and is now part of the nautical exhibit.) But, I digress…
The John Cudahy was a workhorse in her years on Grays Harbor, piloting hundreds of ships from dock to dock and across the Chehalis River bar. When U.S. Senators Ankeny and Piles were on an inspection tour of the state in 1906, the proud tug ferried them out to the entrance of the harbor to assess needed improvements. In 1909, the Cudahy guided the navy cruiser Yorktown, the first large fighting ship to enter the Harbor, to Hoquiam amid a flotilla of private boats.
The Cudahy was also instrumental in rescuing a number of ships that found themselves in peril, among them the racing yacht Olympic, the Admiral, and the steamer Fair Oaks. In 1925, the steam-schooner Caoba, struck by a sudden gale just north of Ocean Park, was foundering when the Cudahy, responding to the distress call, rescued the crew.
About 1919, the Cudahy was sold to the Merrill &Ring Logging Company and set to work towing log rafts in Puget Sound before returning to the Harbor in 1922 as part of the Allman-Hubble tug fleet. In the mid-thirties the tug was sold to the Knappton Towboat Company in Astoria and worked the Columbia River bar. By 1941, with the aging ship’s hull deteriorating and the engine failing, it was put up for sale “as is,” and bought by the Foss Launch and Tug Company of Tacoma who still saw potential in the old workhorse.
The Foss Shipyard initiated a complete overhaul, with a new pilothouse erected on the rebuilt hull and a 1,000-horsepower diesel engine placed below decks. On May 27, 1942, the renovated tugboat, the pride of the Foss fleet, was christened the Henry Foss and sent into military duty with the U.S. Army Engineers. Following the war, the Henry Foss went back into civilian service and dependably continued serving until one fateful morning.
On February 13, 1959, the Henry Foss was headed from Port Angeles to Ladysmith, British Columbia, to pick-up a log tow as a storm was blowing in. About 4 a.m., fighting rough seas, 50-knot gale winds, and near-zero visibility, the tugboat was approaching Beaver Point in the Strait of Georgia when she came to a jarring stop — they’d struck a rock. The engines were put full astern but as the Foss slowly worked off the rock, water began pouring in through the ruptured hull. The tugboat went down so quickly that there was no time to send a distress signal. As the seven-man crew frantically launched the lifeboats, the Henry Foss listed heavily, swamping the lifeboats and tossing the crew into the icy water. The men swam to an overturned lifeboat and hung on, but as hypothermia set in they slipped one-by-one below the surface. Ultimately only the Chief Engineer, Ed Hansen, survived the ordeal, returning to work at Foss before retiring in 1979.
Though the tug was in only about 150-feet of water, the Foss Company chose to leave the 58-year-old wooden-hulled vessel where she lay. Though the Henry Foss sank in the cold waters of British Columbia, the tug John Cudahy lives on in the hearts of those who remember her 40 years of reliable service on Grays Harbor.
Roy Vataja is the son of Finnish immigrants and invites you to come look at the old John Cudahy wheelhouse at the Aberdeen Museum.