Monday, July 7, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ancient Tug Has New Role To Play -- Kenmore-Based Boat To Get Klondike Cameo

Seattle Times Eastside Bureau


Descending into the engine room of the Wallace Foss, looking at century-old planking, it's easy to think this is the way it must have been in the summer of 1897.

That's when the 63-foot tug was built.

Now it's to be used in a July 19 re-enactment of the famous "ton of gold" announcement that launched the Klondike Gold Rush and Seattle's prosperity.

For Dave Walker of Juanita, who owns the Wallace Foss and moors it in Kenmore, that's exactly the reason artifacts like his tug, built with Douglas-fir planks and cedar decks, should be cherished.

"I guess that's why I like old, wood boats," said Walker. "Everything's changed, but the boats are still around."

The Wallace Foss is one of the best examples of such survivors.

Built in Tacoma's "Old Town," the Wallace Foss' existence is remarkable in terms of endurance and preservation.

That hasn't been easy. The tug spent weeks this spring in a Maple Bay, B.C., shipyard, having much of its stern rebuilt, and it's on its seventh engine.

"It has had a blessed life," said Walker, 53, a heavy-equipment dealer representative who grew up near the Seattle Yacht Club and used rowboats to get around Portage Bay. Now he is commodore of the Classic Yacht Association.

Walker owned a 1927 British Columbia-built log-patrol boat, the Wells Gray, for nine years before getting the Wallace Foss.

A century ago, the Wallace Foss was being built for passenger work when its owners changed the design and it became a tug, the Oscar B. By 1913, it was beached on the Snohomish River in Everett, already worn out.

Then Seattle's Rouse Towing bought it, according to published maritime histories, restored it in Ballard and replaced its original steam engine. In 1920, it was acquired by the Foss tug dynasty when Foss took over Rouse.

The tug worked for Foss for the next 52 years, towing barges and logs, until 1972. It was renamed the Wallace Foss in 1945. A new pilothouse was added in 1949, and the tug kept going, getting a hull upgrade in 1960 and a 230-horsepower Caterpillar diesel engine.

By 1972, however, even with the newer engine, the tug couldn't keep up with schedule demands and was sold to a La Conner owner. Several other owners followed.

By the early 1990s, the Wallace Foss was berthed at Bainbridge Island.

The tug's owner, Carla Orcutt, 48, was charged in July 1996 with embezzling $1 million from a Kent company. Prosecutors said the money was spent on expensive pleasures, including $105,000 on jewelry and $135,000 on clothes; Walker said a good deal of the money apparently went into the Wallace Foss.

Orcutt pleaded guilty in November 1996, and she's to be sentenced in King County Superior Court at 11 a.m. July 18, the day before her former boat is to re-create history.

Walker bought the Wallace Foss after it was repossessed by a California credit union as Orcutt's finances collapsed.

Now the Wallace Foss looks much as it did as a Foss tug, including the "Always Ready" emblem on the stack that characterized Foss vessels.

A framed bill of lading from March 1920 is a reminder of how business used to be done: "$4 to move logs to mill," it reads.

On July 19, the Wallace Foss is to move into Seattle's Elliott Bay to meet the cruise ship Spirit of '98 to recreate the events of 1897.

It was July 17, 1897, that a Seattle reporter, Beriah Brown, went to meet the steamer Portland, which was returning from Alaska.

Brown got on board a tug at Port Angeles, went to the Portland and then took the tug into Port Townsend, where he sent a telegram to Seattle that included one of the most famous sentences in Pacific Northwest history:

"At 3 o'clock this morning the steamer Portland from St. Michael for Seattle, passed up the Sound with more than a ton of gold aboard."

That started the Klondike Gold Rush.

The Portland sank on an Alaskan reef in 1910, and the tug that met it has long since disappeared.

The Wallace Foss is expected to be a suitable stand-in, however, and Walker will take a full crew of visitors for the occasion.

"Wood boats - you've got to love them," he said.

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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