The Seaport was founded in 1996 as the Commencement Bay Maritime Association to carry on the work begun in the early 1990s by “Life on the Sound” founders Phyllis Harrison and Mike Vlahovich to create community space to celebrate the art, culture, crafts and skills of Puget Sound’s maritime community. Later the project became known as the Working Waterfront Maritime Museum. The name Foss Waterway Seaport was adopted in 2005 when the vision for the project grew beyond a heritage museum.
The centerpiece of our home is a century-old wheat transfer facility, known as the Balfour Dock building. It is one of two remaining wooden warehouses originally built as a mile-long complex in 1900 (pictured below). These warehouses were built to accommodate cargo carrying, square-rigged ships that frequented the port during the early years of Tacoma’s history. These wharves hosted many beautiful sailing vessels, as well as steam- and diesel-powered cargo traders well into the 20th century.
The Balfour Dock building was last commercially active in the 1970s. The building is owned by the Foss Waterway Development Authority on behalf of the City of Tacoma and is leased to the Seaport organization for $1/year. This arrangement allows Seaport partners to raise and invest resources in a sustainable community-use project at a prime downtown location.
Improvements to the facility were, and are being accomplished in several phases: Phase I included securing of the building and outdoor public spaces. This phase was completed in May 2008. More than $7 million was invested to replace almost 400 feet of rotted original wharf adjacent to and beneath approximately one-third of the building that stands over the water. These funds also provided for the installation of permanent pilings to support an eventual 1,200 linear feet of permanent docks and floats for short-term transient public moorage at the Foss Waterway Seaport. This construction investment created a modern, safe and exciting esplanade with improved public access to the community waterfront and prevented the building’s further deterioration and collapse into the Thea Foss Waterway.
Phase II, which included a new roof, fire suppression improvements, and seismic upgrades, was completed in 2010-2011. The first part of Phase III which included the building exterior, science program space, exhibits and interior finish and a heating system began construction in March 2012, with the removal of the aging brick front of the building and the installation of a dramatic clear wall of glass and entryway on the north end of the block-long facility. The second portion of Phase III, which included restoration and reconstruction of the building exterior, science program space, interior finish and enhanced exhibits, new seminar rooms and offices, and a heating and cooling system was completed in 2017.
Planned future improvements include enclosing the Heritage Wooden Boat Shop, a new illumination of the building, continual improvement of exhibits and the addition of an expanded Marine and Environmental Science classroom. When the entire project is completed, Foss Waterway Seaport will be the largest maritime heritage and education center on the West Coast.