Sunday, October 25, 2015

Maritime Halloween Trivia


Amateur cartographer William L. Taylor added sea monsters to his rendering of the Yukon River Delta as part of a collection of papers in the possession of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society -- The "Fragmentary Records of The Custom House of St. Michael, Alaska, 1894-1917."

Fantastic sea creatures are an enduring part of maritime legend and lore. Test your knowledge of these beasts and spirits!

1. I matched wits with a peg-legged sea captain, driving him insane. Who am I?

2. I destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco Ferry Building, and parts of the Embarcadero with some help from special effects master Ray Harryhausen. What manner of beast am I? 

3. I lure sailors to destruction with my beauty and song and, sometimes, with the smell of coffee. What type of creature am I?

4. I'm a sea witch who gave my name to an atmospheric condition that causes seafarers to see mirages. Who am I?

5. I'm a sea deity discovered by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Extra points if you can spell or pronounce my name. Who am I?

If you haven't been scared off yet, revisit our trivia contests from past years.

Nautical spooks and ghost ships

1. What ghostly mariner starred in a Disney movie long before Pirates of the Caribbean?

2. What spectral sea captain starred in both a romantic movie (1947) and a television series (1968-70)?

3.  On Treasure Island, Jim Hawkins and company come upon the skeleton of a pirate. What is the "point" of the skeleton to the story?

4.  Which of the following is NOT a portent of bad luck in sailing tradition or literature: a woman on board, setting sail on a Friday, a black cat, the black spot, bananas on board.

5.  Who is associated with the ship Queen Anne's Revenge?

6.  Who captained the Black Pearl?

7.  In the Movie, The Fog, what manner of men crew the Elizabeth Dane?

8. Who is The Flying Dutchman?

9. And finally, what scene from history was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow recalling when he described
The Somerset, British man-of-war,
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar 
Across the moon like a prison bar, 
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified 
By its own reflection in the tide.

Halloween Trivia Answers


Here follow the answers, more or less, to our Halloween trivia questions, which may be found here.

1.  Herman Melville's great white whale, Moby Dick, may not have been mythological, but he certainly was monstrous.

2.  The monster in It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) is a giant octopus somehow connected with H-bomb tests. Skip the rest of the movie and watch the last 20 minutes for Ray Harryhausen's stop motion monster in action. Fun fact: the studio couldn't afford eight arms for the octopus, so the creature has only six!

3.  A number of sea witches and mermaids have been blamed for luring sailors to their death; the two-tailed siren is the symbol of Starbucks. 

4.  The sea witch Morgana (or Morgan Le Fay) gave her name to the atmospheric condition known as Fata Morgana, in which distorted images of boats, islands, or buildings appear in the sky, causing confusion to mariners.

5.  Cthulhu is the center of a literary universe created by Lovecraft. Spellings may vary, and, as for pronunciation, good luck with that! We will also accept Dagon, a Semitic fish god who appears in some Lovecraft work.

Elephant fish painted on a church ceiling.


1. Blackbeard's Ghost (1968) starred the incomparable Peter Ustinov as the notorious pirate.
2.  Captain Daniel Gregg is the titular character in the movie and TV show The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

3.  The murdered pirate has been arranged by Captain Flint to point to the buried treasure.

4.  Black cats (or any cats) are generally considered good luck on shipboard, probably because of their rat-catching abilities. As with all traditions, there are exceptions to this rule.

5.  The Queen Anne's Revenge was the last ship captained by the pirate Blackbeard, himself a spectre in Disney's 1968 movie Blackbeard's Ghost (see above). The Queen Anne's Revenge ran aground and sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1718; the wreck was located in 1996 and partially excavated. 

6.  The Black Pearl, a fictional ship starring in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, sailed under both Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbossa. And, frankly, maybe others!

7.  In John Carpenter's spooky film, The Fog (the 1980 original, please), the ghost ship is crewed by a group of angry lepers who were lured to their deaths while seeking a haven.

8.  Trick question. The Flying Dutchman is not a who but a what....a ghost ship doomed to sail the seas forever. Legends may vary.

9.  Longfellow cast a ghostly pall over the British ship guarding Boston Harbor at the time of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Paul Revere managed to avoid detection by the Somerset's sentries as he crossed the Charles River to warn the patriots of the coming of British troops searching for weaponry.

Engraving of Blackbeard, circa 1736.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Deconstructing Annie

Promotional poster for Tugboat Annie
Image courtesy of Jerry Murbach,

Filming Tugboat Annie: Fact and Fiction on Puget Sound


In 1933 Seattle played a part in a blockbuster movie. Tugboat Annie, the story of a wise-cracking female tug skipper in the mythical Secoma community on Puget Sound, was the hit of the day, in many cases being held over for a second week at movie houses across the country! It made over a million dollars for MGM, a huge sum in the day.

The movie, starring Marie Dressler and Wallace Beery, appeared in theaters only weeks after filming was complete. Background scenes featured Lake Union, Queen Anne Hill, and Puget Sound. A tugboat crashes into a ferry on Elliott Bay. And a passenger liner arrives at the Bell Street Pier to the cheers of thousands. 

The bulk of the filming of Tugboat Annie took place on sound stages, sound pools, and lakes in or near MGM's Culver City studios. However, enough scenes were filmed in and around Seattle to justify calling Tugboat Annie the first major movie to be shot in  Seattle. (Barring an episode of a Ripley's Believe it or Not filmed in Tacoma in 1932, it was the first film to be shot in Washington State.)


The movie was based on the short stories of Norman Reilly Raine published in The Saturday Evening Post. Raine began writing his Annie stories in 1931 during a brief stint as a writing instructor at the University of Washington. He gathered inspiration for his popular tales from visiting the Seattle waterfront, incorporating the atmosphere and characters into his stories. 

The unsinkable Annie (a widow in the stories, 'though married in the movie) is a tough-talking, late middle-aged skipper who more than holds her own with both the seafaring and landlubbing men she encounters. She is master of the Narcissus, a sea-going tug. The yarns are full of salty language and local color.
"Tugboat Annie Brennan relinquished the wheel to Shiftless. 'When you wake up,' she told him, 'try to remember we're headin' for Everett, not China.' She stood in the wheelhouse doorway for a minute, and pushed back her old felt hat, drawing deep into her capacious chest the invigorating Puget Sound air, fragrant of pines and the sea. 'These is the days I like,' she went on contentedly, half to herself. 'There's a kind of a twang in the air. My goodness, I'm that hungry I could eat a horse and chase the driver." (From the story "When Greek meets Greek")


Legends take shape where history meets myth. The most enduring mythic element of Annie's legend is that her character was based on Thea Foss, matriarch of the Foss Family and founder of the Foss tugboat business (now Foss Maritime). This myth, nurtured over decades, has taken on the status of gospel despite the fact that the women shared little beyond business acumen. 

Thea Foss (left) with Mathilda Berg in front of the Foss family home in Tacoma, 1910.
 Image courtesy of Washington State Historical Society.

The reality is that Raine became acquainted with Wedell Foss, one of Thea's three sons and a partner in the family business. The Foss corporate history, written by Michael Skalley, credits Wedell Foss with suggesting the plot for Raine's first Tugboat Annie story. Raine himself identifies Wedell Foss as one of his informants in a telling interview with Pacific Motor Boat magazine (November, 1934):
"With the background for a story developing in my mind, and a tentative character to fit into it, I still had no plot. It was then that I sought the cooperation from the heads of the tugboat lines in Seattle and later with the Wrigley and Red Stack people down the coast. ....I sought out and talked with Wedell Foss, that canny Norse member of the Foss Company, Inc., and with George Cary, the genial partner of the Puget Sound Tug and Barge Company. From the first gentleman I got a stirring and interesting episode around which to build my plot; from the second I got material to supplement it; and so steamed back to my office full of beer and inspiration, and commenced to bang out Tugboat Annie."
Kate Sutton of the Providence Steamboat Company on board the Walter E. Sutton. When asked if she was the inspiration for Tugboat Annie, she reportedly said "I hope not!"  Photo courtesy of Providence Steamboat Company collection, Steamship Historical Society Archives,

So who was Annie? Was she Wedell's mild-mannered mother, who never actually plowed the waters? Was she Kate Sutton, the owner and manager of the Providence Steamboat Company in Rhode Island whom Raine had heard of from a reporter friend? Was she entirely fictional?

The answer appears to be a little bit of each.....along with a large dose of Marie Dressler.

In the Pacific Motor Boat article Raine goes on to explain:
"Then, suddenly, I ran into an obstacle. The good lady in Providence was not, I speedily saw, a sufficiently colorful and definite character around whom to build the story....Then I recollected having seen, some time before in the film "Min and Bill" a marvelous piece of characterization of a waterfront character, played by that grand old trouper, Marie Dressler. I had my answer. I would write Miss Dressler into the character. Not, be it noted, with any idea of motion picture sale or production, but simply as someone whom I could visualize clearly as I wrote; who was rough of tongue and soft of heart; who could be adamant in a business deal, yet hold the affection and interest of magazine readers, as Miss Dressler won the affection and admiration of picture fans."
Thea Foss is not mentioned in the Pacific Motor Boat interview although Raine must have been aware of her through his friendship with her son. Wedell Foss, himself, is sometimes mentioned as the inspiration for Annie's rival in the movie and later her son's boss, Red Severn. Others see Severn as a nod to shipping magnate Robert Dollar.


The bigwigs in Hollywood clearly identified Dressler with the part, as well. Fresh from her Oscar win for Min and Bill, the 64-year old* Dressler's star was riding high in 1933. Unfortunately her health was not. Knowing full well that she was battling cancer, MGM's Louis B. Mayer talked her into a punishing three-film contract over a six month schedule. 

Betty Lee's well researched biography of Dressler, based on primary source material including the diaries of Dressler's close companion, Claire Dubrey, details how Mayer protected his valuable property:
"As he had previously arranged for Dinner at Eight, Mayer ordered that the star's working day be confined to three hours, that stand-ins be used for rehearsals, and that a sofa be available for Dressler's use when the camera's were not turning."

This brings us to a second myth -- that Marie Dressler was in Seattle for the filming of Tugboat Annie. Despite misinformation from director Mervyn LeRoy's own self-serving and inaccurate autobiography, this is extremely unlikely. All scenes with Dressler and co-star Wallace Beery were filmed at MGM studios, even those on the water. There was no need for them to travel to Puget Sound, especially in Dressler's condition. The local newspapers, full of coverage of the film crew on Lake Union, make no mention of the presence of either star. 

Another fable connected to Dressler's mythical stay in Seattle can be traced to her own autobiography. The story goes that Louis B. Mayer purchased a small cottage Marie had admired and had it moved to Seattle for use as her dressing room and residence while on location. Dressler's use of the phrase "on location" was quickly misinterpreted by some biographers to mean Seattle. A close reading of Lee's biography of Dressler make it clear that the location was a lake near the Culver City studios.

Despite such pampering, the Tugboat Annie shoot was not easy on Dressler and others. In her autobiography, the actress describes filming in MGM’s tank:
“The most grueling piece of physical labor I ever put in was during the filming of the storm scenes in ‘Tugboat Annie.’ One coastwise sailor in the cast told me that in twenty years’ experience aboard tramp steamers he had never encountered rougher seas than those manufactured in our studios. They should have been good. Mr. Mayer spent $30,000 on the dock alone! Able-bodied men were slapped down by waves the script described as mild. There was more than one arm in a sling, and at least one leg in a plaster cast before we got through.” (Dressler, My Own Story, 271-72)


Marie and Wally may not have acted in Seattle, but there were other actors with strong local connections. MGM hired several local boats in starring roles: the Arthur Foss tugboat (then called the Wallowa) played the part of the Narcissus, Tugboat Annie's own boat; the Sea King, owned by the Gilkey Brothers, portrayed rival towboat Firefly; and a cannery ship, the General W.C. Gorges, a former German steamship, stood in for the fictional Glacier Queen, a passenger liner captained by Annie's son in the movie. The ferryboat Washington of Kirkland, sailing under its own name, is t-boned by the Narcissus in Elliott Bay. No fault of Annie's, the accident occurs when her husband is distracted by a cask of bootleg "hooch" floating in the bay.

Originally the Prinz Sigismund, the steamer was seized from the Germans during World War I and became an American troop transport, renamed the General W.C. Gorgas. Later the ship was used for commercial purposes, including salmon cannery work, until World War II when she once again became a troop transport. In 1945 she was sold to the Soviet Union. 
Photo courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Many other tugs and boats were hired as extras. Employees of Foss Tugboat and Barge were pulled into service by Wedell Foss, a strong booster for the production. 

Mervyn LeRoy came to town to direct his floating actors. The director of Little Caesar was quoted in the paper as saying "I've directed mobs of 'gangsters,' but you can't talk to a tugboat -- you must do it with signals to their pilots." (Seattle Daily News, April 11, 1933.) Crowds gathered on the shores of Lake Union to watch the action.

The tug Sea King played the part of the Firefly in Tugboat Annie.
Photo courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society.

Because many of the maritime scenes were filmed in Culver City, it was necessary to build a replica of the Wallowa for exterior shots. Well-known naval architect Carl Nordstrom was hired to prepare plans of the boat. The Seattle Daily Times reports that Nordstrom was to draw up plans for both the Wallowa and the Sea King, but it is possible that the plans for the Sea King were never used. Portions of the Glacier Queen were constructed on MGM's Stage 22. 

That a replica of the Wallowa was built is confirmed by photos in the book M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot which show the tug on a studio lake as late as 1970 alongside other famous film vessels including the Cotton Blossom from Showboat

Plans of the Arthur Foss as drawn by naval architect Carl Nordstrom. The venerable tug still floats at the historic ships pier at Lake Union Park. Image courtesy of Northwest Seaport.
Movie magic allowed these boats to change identity for subsequent movies. The Wallowa replica may or may not have been used as an extra in another Wallace Beery film, Barnacle Bill, in 1940. About the same time the erstwhile Narcissus had a narrow escape. According to M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot
"In November of 1940, because of falling high-tension wires, fire raged through the area, destroying much of the [Lot One] set and threatening the old Tugboat Annie tugboat. The heat was so intense, and aggravated by a stiff ocean breeze, that windows in the studio's Cartoon Department across Overland Avenue were shattered....The tugboat survived, however, and would finally be secured on the Lot Three lake." (p. 119)

The galley of the Arthur Foss is a bit more cramped that that of the Narcissus in the movie. 
Photo, Alan Humphrey.

Seattleites also had their chance to be extras in a real Hollywood movie: somewhere between "a few score" and ten-thousand locals turned out as unpaid extras for the big scene where the Glacier Queen steams alongside the Bell Street Pier to brass bands and streamers. Other locals were on hand as background characters in the scenes filmed on Lake Union. A local houseboat dweller, Maria Fisk, was hired to double Marie Dressler in long shots on the boat. Seattle Mayor John Dore, enthralled by movie-making, reportedly donned a sailor's cap to appear in some scenes. Of course local pilots and crewmen worked the boats. Captain Clarence Howden piloted the Wallowa/Narcissus.


Tugboat Annie had its world premier at the Fifth Avenue Theater in Seattle on July 28, 1933. The city made the most of the honor. The first showing, at 11:30 in the morning, was heralded with a cacophony of ships whistles in the harbor. The big event in the evening involved fireworks, balloons, klieg lights, and many local celebrities including Mayor Dore and Lieutenant-Governor Victor Meyers. Governor Clarence D. Martin sent a telegram, as did the film's stars. The Seattle Star covered the celebrations:
"While a cool evening breeze brought the salty breath of Elliott bay up thru downtown canyons, glaring arc lights swept the faces of thousands who came to watch the first showing of the picture which is to send the echo of Puget Sound towboat whistles around the world." (July 29, 1933)
The ferryboat Washington of Kirkland makes its way through the Ballard Locks in this photo courtesy of Kirkland Heritage Society. The museum ship St. Paul can be seen in the background with an "open" sign attached to its foremast. 


Tacoma held its own premier of the movie three weeks following the Seattle event, rightfully claiming a share of cinema history. "Secoma," after all, was a mash-up of the two port cities. On the Sunday following the opening the first Tugboat Annie races were held on Commencement Bay to great fanfare. Myth has Marie Dressler personally presenting the silver loving cup to Captain Arthur Hofstead of the tug Peter Foss which had nosed out the Captain O.G. Olsen by a scant three feet.

Although the Marie Dressler Loving Cup may have been donated by the actress or her people, the Tacoma News Tribune informs us that the prize was presented by Leroy V. Johnson, general manager of the Jensen-von Herberg Company which owned the local theater showing Tugboat Annie.

Tugboat racing became a staple at maritime events in Puget Sound from that day.

A Tugboat Annie race photographed by Joe Williamson, circa 1940.
The Arthur Foss is in the lead. Courtesy of Puget Sound Maritime.


Marie Dressler died of cancer a year to the day from the Seattle premier of Tugboat Annie. Her character, Captain Annie Brennan, pursued her adventures on Puget Sound in two more movies, a short-lived TV series, and some 75 short stories which trickled out from the pen of Norman Reilly Raine until the author's death in 1971.

Seattle would not see another major motion picture company until Elvis Presley came to town in 1962 to film It Happened at the World's Fair (released in 1963). By that time Seattle was identified more with the aerospace industry than with the maritime. Tugboat Annie remains a pleasant reminder of rough and tumble days in a waterfront town.

Cast and crew publicity photo for Tugboat Annie, 1933. From left front are Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Mervyn LeRoy, and writer Norman Reilly Raine. Famed cameraman Gregg Toland leans over Miss Dressler. Image Courtesy of Tacoma Public Library, C157920-3.

Selected sources:  

  • Selected articles from The Seattle Daily Times, The Tacoma News Tribune, The Seattle Star
  • Stephen Bingen, Stephen X. Sylvester, and Michael Troyan, M-G-M: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot, 2011.
  • Norman Reilly Raine, Tugboat Annie (collected stories), 1934.
  • Norman Reilly Raine, "That's How Tugboat Annie was born," Pacific Motor Boat, November 1934.
  • Mervyn LeRoy with Dick Kleiner, Mervyn LeRoy: Take One, 1974.
  • Marie Dressler with Mildred Harrington, My Own Story, 1934.
  • Matthew Kennedy, Marie Dressler: A Biography, 1999.
  • Victoria Sturtevant, A Great Big Girl like Me: The Films of Marie Dressler, 2009.
  • Betty Lee, Marie Dressler: The Unlikeliest Star, 1997.
  • Michael Skalley, Foss: Ninety Years of Towboating, 1981.
  • "The Providence Steamboat Company: Still a Family Business," PowerShips, the Magazine of the Steamship Historical Society of America, Summer 2012.
  • Gordon Newell, ed., The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, 1966.

*In good Hollywood tradition, Dressler's age is uncertain. Dates for her birth range from 1865 to 1868 to 1871, the date that appears on her grave marker.