Once upon a time not so very long ago, it was a somewhat daunting prospect to come and go between the Dome District and the establishments along either side of the Thea Foss Waterway. Until 2008 in fact, ‘D’ Street, the key avenue between these two areas, was intersected by numerous train tracks flowing out of Tacoma's busy train yards. The way was often blocked by rail traffic.
Thanks to the construction of the ‘D’ Street overpass, the revitalized Thea Foss Waterway and the Dome district are connected. Pedestrians and motorists need no longer stop to wait for rail traffic to get from the Dome District to the restaurants, parks, marinas, museums and condos that have popped up along the waterway.
What could have been a mundane and utilitarian overpass of the train tracks was made into a thing of beauty and a source of civic pride by the foresight of the planners and funders who brought artist and designer Vicki Scuri into the process. Scuri specializes in community-based, environmentally friendly design that emphasizes community identity. Her contribution to the ‘D’ Street Overpass project included a wavy walkway, MSE green walls, fencing with railroad rail posts and pedestrian lights whose form echoes the sails of the yachts moored at the marinas up and down the waterway. Most notable, however, are the 26 concrete traffic barriers that line the bridge. These are intended to be in the shape of tugboats in commemoration of the tug company that Thea Foss founded on the waterway that now bears her name. The casual observer must be forgiven if these shapes are mistaken for ferryboats since they do resemble the smaller ferry boats that service the waters of Puget Sound.
Having received her Bachelor of Arts degree in 1975 from the University of California, Berkeley, Scuri went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1980. Based in Lake Forest Park, she has applied her design skills to infrastructure projects all over the United States. Her 1995 “Dreamy Draw Bridge” in Phoenix, Ariz. is particularly pretty. Scuri is also the designer behind the “Great Wall,” the patterned concrete panels along I-5 south of the Tacoma Dome.
Each of the 26 “tugboat” shapes is emblazoned with the name of a historic boat that once operated in what is now Thea Foss Waterway. The names are fascinating and poetic. Elf, Wanderer, Falcon, Chippewa, Commodore and Echo are a few of the names. Some are obviously names of early Foss tugboats named after family members. There is Lorna Foss, Arthur Foss, Andrew Foss, Drew Foss and Thea Foss. These names play upon the curiosity of passersby so that one feels compelled to begin doing some digging into local history. What were the boats and ships that bore these names here memorialized by Scuri? What did they look like? What stories reside beneath these wonderful names?
A little research into the matter yields rich results. An image of another era begins to appear. There was a time when busy steam tugs plied these waters. Many of the names, however, are not those of tugboats but belong to some of the steamers of the fabled Mosquito Fleet, the hundreds of small, privately owned vessels that were the main means of transportation around the Puget Sound region before the development of the state highway and ferry system.
One of these commemorated on the overpass, the Virginia V, is still in existence, operating on the lakes around Seattle. Originally she was a stalwart of the Tacoma to Seattle run, picking up passengers at the Tacoma Municipal Dock (located near the current day Murray Morgan Bridge).
Other vessels of the Mosquito Fleet such as the Flyer, the Indianapolis and the Tacoma are also commemorated on the ‘D’ Street Overpass. Launched in 1913, the steam ship Tacoma once held the speed record (77 minutes) for the Seattle to Tacoma run.
Two of the names etched onto the tugboat shapes, Wallowa and Arthur Foss, are two different names of the same vessel that had a fascinating story. Beginning life as the Wallowa in 1889, the vessel spent the first 40 years of its long service on the Columbia River and on the coast between Portland and Skagway. Foss Tug Company acquired the vessel in 1929 and she made Tacoma's waterway her home. The vessel was renamed Narcissus to play a starring role in the 1933 film “Tugboat Annie” (about the life of Thea Foss). After the film, the vessel was fitted with a new engine, deck, cabin, pilot house and was renamed Arthur Foss. As Arthur Foss, the vessel was used in the Pacific during WWII becoming the last vessel to depart Wake Island in the face of the Japanese invasion in 1941. The vessel continued service until 1968 when it was retired. The vessel is now owned and maintained by Northwest Seaport Museum in Seattle.
Behind each of these names there is a story. The romance of the age of steam is contained in that poetry of names emblazoned on the ‘D’ Street Overpass. The bridge over the train tracks is thus a monument to that age when hard working vessels belting out plumes of steam were busy in the waterway.
As yet, this pedestrian friendly overpass is something of an undiscovered gem- a secret pleasure known mainly homeless folk and the residents of the new condos along the Thea Foss Esplanade. Visitors to the Dome District, Museum of Glass and restaurants are encouraged to get out and stretch their legs along this project that wraps around the south end of the waterway. See what flights of fancy take place when the names of the vessels of a bygone ere begin to weave their spell. Can you see the busy tugs and the sleek passenger liners? Do you hear the distant echo of a steam whistle?