Tug Tyee

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It was the most powerful workboat in the rough-and-tumble Pacific Northwest: the mighty tug Tyee. A 1,000-hp steam engine drove the 141-foot wooden boat that was built in 1884 at Doncaster and McCurdy’s in Port Ludlow, Washington. Rugged service was in store. Andrew Pope and William Talbot’s Puget Mill Co. put her to work in the lumber trade, moving great floating booms of logs between ports on the West Coast, at a time when cities and towns were being built.

Based in Seattle, Washington, the tug furthered her reputation by towing vessels—often three or four at once—in and out of that busy harbor. Tyee meant “big chief” in the local Native American dialect, and this “sturdy, low-slung bearer of burdens,” as a writer called her, lived up to the title. When Tyee, after 32 years’ worth of service, was hauled out for inspection at the Hall Brothers marine railway on Bainbridge Island, she was still “staunch, strong and well-built,” the survey stated.

Tyee is the kind of vessel—a husky, hardworking, lunch-bucket type—that captivates marine artist Bill Ryan. Born in Oakland, California, in 1936, Ryan says he remembers his father running a harbor tug. As a young artist, he worked during summers on bridges in the San Francisco Bay area; myriad harbor craft passed below. “I saw a lot of shipping,” the 83-year-old artist says from his Naples, Florida, home.

Later, honing his skills, he would set up his watercolors down at the docks in a waterfront city such as Aberdeen, Washington. “The people there would come over and talk to us, and oh, the stories they would tell,” Ryan says. “I got interested in the old tugboats. With their lines and their tall stacks, I thought they were well-proportioned for painting. And, they’re part of our history.” Ryan tries to paint some of that history along with boats like Tyee. “I take the scenery, the water, the sky,” he says, “and put in a tug I like.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.