The Foss Waterway Seaport — Celebrating Tacoma’s Working Waterfront and Boat Building Culture

The Foss Waterway Seaport got its start 20 years ago as the Commencement Bay Maritime Association. Located along Tacoma’s scenic Dock Street, the seaport’s original function was to oversee and care for the exhibition “Life on the Sound,” which celebrated Tacoma’s working waterfront and boat building culture.

At the time, the Commencement Bay Maritime Association occupied just a small corner what is now the Foss Waterway Seaport’s current building.

Over time, members of the maritime community would drop off various maritime artifacts and items, and the Commencement Bay Maritime Association’s collection started to grow. This collection and active boat building shop became the foundation of today’s museum, which is historic in itself.

Foss Waterway Seaport
The Foss Waterway Seaport is illuminated at night, serving as a beacon of light along Tacoma’s scenic Dock Street. Photo courtesy: Kevin Scott / Olson Kundig Architects.

The building, which became known as the Balfour Dock building, was constructed by the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1900. It is the last remaining section of a nearly mile-long series of wheat warehouses along Tacoma’s waterfront, where grain from Eastern Washington was exported from Tacoma.

Eventually, the Commencement Bay Maritime Association became the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum to better reflect its emphasis on commerce and Tacoma’s working waterfront culture.

In 2004 the Working Waterfront Maritime was rebranded into its current identity as the Foss Waterway Seaport.

In 2008, substantial construction was performed on the collapsing wharf and a new concrete esplanade was installed. This was a major step in securing the future of the Foss Waterways Seaport’s historic building, as the foundation is essential for all other functions.

Today, the Foss Waterway Seaport houses the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum and Heritage Boat Shop. It also plays host to a variety of educational workshops and annual events like the Tacoma Maritime Fest.

According to Foss Waterway Seaport Executive Director, Wesley Wenhardt, more than 2,500 young students visit the seaport each year to learn about marine science. “[The Foss Waterway Seaport] is a tremendous regional resource for the people of Puget Sound to promote and celebrate our maritime heritage,” says Wenhardt. “Tacoma and the South Sound have this rare opportunity to celebrate maritime heritage, and we believe we’re the best place to do it.”

Foss Waterway Seaport
In addition to its museum, boat shop and educational seminars, the Foss Waterway Seaport also plays host to a variety of special events throughout the year. Photo courtesy: Kevin Scott / Olson Kundig Architects.

And despite an already extensive collection of offerings, the Foss Waterway Seaport continues to expand. In 2010, the seaport acquired a large collection of maritime items from a museum that closed, making the seaport an active collecting organization. This collection increased the seaport’s existing inventory of artifacts by nearly three times.

The same year, the seaport undertook $20 million dollars in improvements to the building. The Foss Waterway Seaport is planning another round of construction, set to start this April. “The best is yet to come,” says Wenhardt. “Our building will soon have access year-round.”

Wenhardt says the best thing about the seaport, however, is the selection of engaging and compelling activities the seaport has to offer. “We allow people to come down and experience the waterfront, smell the air and freshness, and walk to the building, which is our greatest and biggest artifact,” he says. “The building is such a wonderful venue to inspire and draw people in with its magic and rich maritime heritage. We’ve got so many stories to tell.”

And, with so many activities offered, there are many ways to experience the Foss Waterway Seaport, including dockside tours (free with museum admission), special events like the Tacoma Maritime Fest (July 16-17, 2016), and opportunities to board the Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain (August 18-23, 2016).

Foss Waterway Seaport
The Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain will make a pit-stop at the Foss Waterway Seaport this summer, August 18-23.

The Foss Waterway Seaport also offers Land and Boat Based Education Programs throughout the summer season, which include “Pier Peer,” a public event that provides the community with a fish’s eye view of what’s under the water.

There are always open volunteer opportunities at the Foss Waterway Seaport as well.

To learn more about the Foss Waterway Seaport and to plan your next visit, check out the Foss Waterway Seaport’s website online or call 253-272-2750.