Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | April 9, 2011

Under Lake Union

The Center for Wooden Boats’ Lake Union Archaeology Project has already gotten a decent amount of local press, starting with this Seattle Times article written by Three Sheets Northwest’s Deborah Bach and followed by a shorter article in the Post-Intelligencer.  I can’t help but tout this, though, because the underwater survey of wrecks and remains, overseen directly by the CWB’s Dick Wagner, is just too interesting.  I have known a handful of underwater archaeologists during my old academic life, from the grad students at Cal Berkeley to the insane divers who helped us survey the cove at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island.  Fact is, the murky, 45-degree waters of Lake Union sound intense enough.  You can read all about the project at its own site (linked above), but I wanted to highlight a few wrecks and their stories.  OK, maybe this is just an excuse to write about them…

The 36-foot Gypsy Queen began life in 1942 in New York as the YMS-105, a “Yard-class minesweeper.”  History tells us that nearly a quarter of all ships lost during World War II were due to mines.  Even our Atlantic Coast had to be swept, and it was here that the YMS-105 served until she was decommissioned in 1946.  After being stripped, it is said that the boat was sold thirteen times until finally coming to Thomas Stanley Hill of Seattle in 1958.  Hill had dreams of a “Gypsy Fleet” to work the fisheries in Alaska that included the Gypsy Queen as a processing boat, the Gypsy Trader as a trawler and the Gypsy Too as a tug to get the former YMS-105, whose engine was burned out, north.  The dreams were ruined:  The Gypsy Too caught fire in 1965, and the Gypsy Trader sprung a leak and sank in the night in 1968.  The Gypsy Queen sank at an unknown date and now sits–fully upright–in 40 feet of water at the south end of the lake, as if she had simply gone down at her dock.

Another former Navy craft was a barge last known as the Foss 54.  The Foss Company has been part of Northwest maritime history since 1889 when Norwegian immigrant Thea Foss bought a rowboat in Tacoma and went into business renting and chartering.  A little over a decade later, Foss had a fleet with its own shipyard.  Foss expanded to Seattle during World War I and now has operations pretty much everywhere.  The tugboat Arthur Foss, built in 1889 and bought (and renamed) by Foss in 1929, is moored around the corner from the CWB and is where I do Pirate Story Time.  The Foss Company bought a huge 110-foot wooden barge in 1929 that had originally been built by the Navy in Bremerton in 1908.  The barge left the historical record in 1969, when it might have been sold; Foss’ Tacoma office and all of its records burned in the 1970’s.  What we do know is that she now lays at the bottom of north Lake Union, still bearing her Foss name and number.  (You can see a video of a dive around the barge here.)

Possibly the most interesting vessel yet found is the 85-foot tugboat J.E. Boyden, built in Seattle in 1888.  The J.E. Boyden began working in an era when tall ships were still dominant in Washington, and she helped guide them through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Puget Sound.  In 1906, the Mackenzie Brothers (eh?!) bought her.  She began a long service pulling coal and lumber when these were huge industries in the Pacific Northwest, although she was not above hauling whatever turned a profit.  She changed hands several times.  Finally, in 1935 she was ingloriously stripped and scuttled in the middle of the lake.  Below is a scan of the J.E. Boyden on the lake bottom.

I was taught years ago that archaeology is the science of trash.  Unless ceremony is involved–the journey of an Egyptian pharaoh into the afterlife, the sacrifice of slaves and children to gods among the Inca–what is left behind is what is unwanted and abandoned, intentional or unintentional debris.  When I was doing historical archaeology in Alaska, this meant small objects like trade beads, bones and seeds.  What is wild to me is that vessels–a war-veteran boat, a 110-foot barge, a well-traveled tug–could be left behind in the same manner.  We have to remind ourselves that the Lake Union now pretty with yachts and houseboats was once dirty and industrial.  As hard as it is to imagine, these boats were the disposable tools of business.

The Times article describes wrecks “stacked on top of each other.”  The survey has about a year to go still.  You’ve got my attention.


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