Knutson Towboat: 100 Years Strong


From a one-man operation to a diverse transportation, marine and construction contracting services company, Knutson Towboat has been an integral part of the Coos Bay, Oregon waterfront for 100 years. Photo by Peter Marsh.

This year marks the centenary of Knutson Towboat Company of Coos Bay, Oregon, founded by Norwegian immigrant Louis Knutson in 1915. He moved west in 1908 when many Scandinavians left the upper Midwest to work in the NW lumber industry. Seven years after his arrival, he was able to realize his dream of owning a boat and running his own business on the bay. The Koos had previously carried guests to Shore Acres, the coastal estate of lumber baron Asa S. Simpson, and was easily converted into a small utility boat.

Although Knutson only spoke basic English with a strong accent, he succeeded because he was prepared to take any kind of work from towing logs to ferrying people or animals around the local waterways. As the lumber business boomed and the local economy grew in the 1920's, a Mosquito Fleet of small boats provided transportation before roads and bridges were built.

The little Koos was to become the first of numerous work boats that the Knutson family bought, built or converted over the next century to meet the changing demand for marine services. Today, John Knutson, grandson of the founder, presides over the company. His son Bryan is now chief operating officer with 20 years in the business – and Bryan's three children aged 5, 9 and 11 represent the fifth generation. The company operates four tugs in Coos Bay, and also provides the pilot and ship-handling service in Eureka, California and the Grays Harbor pilot boat in Aberdeen, Washington.

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However, the log-towing business, the company's mainstay for 70 years, completely disappeared in the 1990's after the state of Oregon's DEQ decided that log rafts were damaging to fish runs. In response, the company began building a trucking business called Koos Transportation, managed by John's son-in-law Dax Davidson, which transported logs by road and soon overtook the towboat division.

For more than a century, lumber has been king in Coos Bay (once called Marshfield) and the city claimed to be the "largest log exporter in the world." The local economy rose and fell with the worldwide demand for cut lumber, so a 1922 fire that burned the waterfront barely slowed production. That was just the first of many disasters that could have sunk Louis Knutson, but his only boat was not harmed and he assisted in the re-building.

By 1924, he could afford to have a new river tug built to his specification. The Koos #2 was a big boat for its time – 48 feet long – and built to last. Knutson survived the Depression with whatever work he could find until the WPA announced federal funding to build a mile-long bridge across Coos Bay – one of five bridges that replaced all the ferries on the coastal estuaries, including Knutson's.

By 1941, lumber was needed to support the war effort. Knutson's boats moved rafts of spruce down to the bay for aircraft production and quality fir for the revived Kruse and Banks Shipyard. It launched eight 136-foot YMS minesweepers and four 165-foot ATR tugs for the US Navy – all built from local lumber. The Shipyard closed at the end of the war, but other wood-related industries soon took its place.

Louis' sons Harold and Lloyd joined their father in the late 1940's. Harold had attended OSU and took over the helm as his father's health deteriorated. In 1959, the offices moved out of Harold's house and into a new building on the waterfront property that became the company base and dock. Louis died in 1960 after 45 years in the business, and was commemorated when Knutson's first steel tug was launched, the 55-foot by 16-foot pushboat Captain Louie, christened by Harold's eldest daughter Karen.

In 1963, the brothers took the significant step of leasing and later purchasing 60 acres of waterfront land three miles up the Isthmus Slough at Millington for a log yard that enabled them to provide a fully integrated service. Their Front Street property also had enough space to turn the machine shop, steel fabrication, and truck repair and body shop into separate Knutson-owned operations

In 1979, the company landed a large contract to supply the Weyerhaeuser saw mill at the mouth of the Coos River. Logs were floated downstream from booming grounds as far as 20 miles inland. Several additional tugs were added: single-screw boats like the Widgeon, Koos 6, Koos 7, Koos 8 with around 300 HP plus the twin-screw Beaver and Goose.

Knutson built the 38-foot by 12-foot Thea Knutson (named after Louis' wife) in 1980 with a different propulsion system. It was powered by a 465-HP Cummins engine turning a 42-inch prop in a steerable Kort nozzle giving the boat great maneuverability and a 6-ton bollard pull. This propulsion system was engineered by local naval architect Jack Wilskey who would go on to provide design services for many boats for Knutsen, Sause and the expanding fleet that fished from Oregon to Alaska. The Thea is still working under a new owner in Newport.

The Knutson fleet was kept busy with as many as 150 log rafts at a time moored along the local waterways, which kept almost a dozen tugs busy. Two rafts were tied together into a 900-foot long tow composed of around 1,000 logs and weighing as much as 5,000 tons. For more than 30 years, beginning in 1963, Knutson built rafts of Port Orford cedar at the Millington yard for shipment to Japan. The local cedar resembled the Japanese native cypress reserved for temples and palaces, so was highly valued.

Lloyd Knutson retired in 1981, and sold his interest to Harold's son John who had joined the company after his graduation from the University of Oregon in 1974. Soon after, the construction of the 65-foot by 24-foot twin screw Koos King began. Harold's youngest daughter Laurie christened it in 1983 at Mid Coast Marine at the head of the bay.

This powerful new boat with 2,000 HP was able to provide ship-berthing service for the bigger lumber and wood-product ships, aided by the Captain Louie, which was re-powered, nozzled, lengthened by 10 feet, and widened with a 6-foot insert on the centerline. All the work was done onshore in the company parking lot and boosted the bollard pull to 38,000 lbs.

By 1987, the Koos #2 had reached the end of its working life, running on its third engine – a 500 hp V-12 Cummins, and reinforced with a steel transom. It was one of the last wooden tugs operating in the area and was donated to the City of Coos Bay. It is displayed on the boardwalk in a well-designed shelter, protected from the weather.

Looking ahead, Harold and John determined that the company would have to develop a broader non-maritime base.

Harold Knutson served as president until his death in 1997, having participated in almost 60 years of maritime history in the region. His son John assumed the role of president and soon began planning for the latest round of new building. In 2002, the tugs Captain Harold (60 feet) and Humboldt (65 feet) were created from a couple of bare hulls, but were found to be under-powered. They were later re-powered in 2003 with twin 1,500 HP Cummins KTA 38's and Kort nozzles to give a bollard pull of 61,400 lbs. They spent the next seven years in Grays Harbor where Knutson had won the port's contract for ship handling.

The company has also offered marine construction services in the bay for more than 50 years. A recent example was the Coast Guard boat station in Charleston, built in 2010-11, where Knutson crews prepared the foundation, drove all the steel pilings, and filled them with concrete. They recently supported the swing span repair on the coastline railroad bridge after it was damaged by errant barges.

The log export business is again picking up in Coos Bay and Knutson is well placed to profit from this, with Koos Transportation operating over 100 log trucks and about 180 employees, and providing a full service to the shippers through its Millington property. Harold's son-in-law Roger Ketchum has been the manager there for many years.

The ASD-drive Kamaehu (soon to be re-named Centennial) now leads the company team for the weekly log ship, assisted by the twin-screw towboats Captain Harold and the Captain Louie, whose push knees can be lowered hydraulically for ship work. "With all the boats we've converted or re-powered, we have added large propellers and deep reduction gearing up to 7:1 to maximize bollard pull," explained Bryan Knutson who has hands-on experience with at least 20 of the company's tugs over the last 20 years.

The crews of these boats have always been long-term employees, notes Laurie Knutson-Sharp, who has worked in the company office since 1982. "The company's family tradition applied equally to many employees who had stayed with the Knutson for their entire working lives," she explained. "Carl Ericson worked with us for 38 years, his son Rick worked in the machine shop for 30 years, and son John has been here for 40 years." John is the senior port captain and still runs the Kamaehu daily, while working on dispatch, scheduling and training from his "on-board office" in the boat's day cabin.

Today, the third and fourth Knutson generations plus their extended family members are working hard to keep their grandfather and great-grandfather's dream alive, on the water and in the woods. "It is an honor for my family to be a part of an operation that has carved out its place in history along the Coos Bay waterfront," said company president John Knutson. "But the company would not be what it is today without the dedicated service of generations of employees. Without them, we would not have survived."

Captain and Founder Louis Knutson is seen here launching Koos No. 4 in the 1940s. Photo courtesy of Knutson Towboat.


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