It is difficult to miss Fireboat No. 1, the big red vessel that is permanently beached along the Ruston Way waterfront. A tugboat-like monster of impressive length and girth, Fireboat No. 1 has been a fixture of our waterfront pathway since 1986.
Originally built in 1929 by Tacoma’s Coastline Shipbuilding Company, Fireboat No. 1 was one of the first American vessels built specifically for the purpose of fighting fires. The boat’s predecessor, the “Fearless,” was a steam-powered tug that was retrofitted with firefighting equipment. In an age of wooden ships and in a town like Tacoma with sawmills and wooden wharves, in a town with wooden wharves, the fireboat was deemed a necessary piece of municipal equipment.
From 1929 until 1982, Fireboat No. 1 was Tacoma’s dutiful servant and goodwill ambassador. As an aquatic first responder the vessel was on hand to fight shipboard and waterfront fires. Using gasoline powered engines, the fireboat could draw upon the limitless supply of water beneath its hull and direct it – at a rate of 10,000 gallons per minute – against a conflagration. Water was sprayed through seven strategically placed water cannons called monitors.
The vessel was also used to pump water out of sinking ships as well as for search and rescue, harbor patrol and water pollution control missions.
On festive occasions and when important ships came calling on Commencement Bay, Fireboat No. 1 was dispatched to welcome them with a display of impressive water plumes spouting from all the water cannons simultaneously.
Fireboat No. 1 had a 12-man crew that worked in shifts. The boat’s moorage was at the foot of the 11th Street Bridge (now called the Murray Morgan Bridge) along Thea Foss Waterway. The craft is 96 feet long with a steel hull and three propellers.
Fireboat No. 1 has the distinction of being the only fireboat in United States history to protect a major port by itself for more that half a century. In 1982 however, a pair of new and improved vessels replaced Fireboat No. 1 after 53 years of faithful service.
At that time a non-profit group called the Tacoma Fireboat Marine Museum Foundation was formed to preserve faithful Fireboat No. 1 that had protected Commencement Bay all alone through half of the 20th century. The vessel was moved ashore to its present location in March 1986. Three years later, in June 1989, Fireboat No. 1 was designated a National Historic Landmark by the United States Department of the Interior; one of just 24 historic landmarks in Washington.
Fireboat No. 1 is one of just five fireboats in the United States to be designated as National Historic Landmarks. Another of the five is Seattle’s “Duwamish” (built in 1909), which was awarded its landmark status on the same date as Tacoma’s Fireboat No. 1.
Originally there were plans to utilize the vessel as a museum but little has happened on this front.
Nevertheless, Fireboat No. 1 is an attractive fixture on Tacoma’s waterfront. Pedestrians proceeding along the walkway invariably stop to examine or circumambulate the big red beast. They ponder the sweeping hull; its steel plates and rivets all in red. They amble to the boat’s round rear and bend down to peer at the gleaming trio of propellers. Children love to venture down into the gravelly grotto beneath the keel.
Located near the now defunct but soon to be renovated Fire Station 5 and not far from Larry Perkins’ bronze homage to firefighters (to be a subject of a future edition of the “Know your public art” column), the area is becoming Tacoma’s own firefighter memorial complex. What we need now is a piece of the World Trade Center to make the monument complete. Such relics are being made available via the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s World Trade Center Steel program.