Pacific Maritime Magazine - Marine Business for the Operations Sector

Fremont Tug Marks 100 Years Service on Lake Union


Peter Marsh

The 32-foot Yankee, piloted by Erik Freeman and photographed from the Dixie, while moving the F/V Courageous.

1915 was a big year on Lake Union. The Lake Washington Ship Canal and the Hiram Chittenden Locks were about to connect the lakes and North Seattle with Puget Sound and the Pacific Ocean. Activity on and around the lake had increased in anticipation of the opening of the waterway: the Fishermen's Terminal was open for business on the west side of the canal, William Boeing was constructing his first seaplane in a boathouse on the Portage Cut, and a veteran tug skipper named Cap Webster founded Fremont Tugboat on the east side of the lake.

This development had been predicted as early as 1854, when Thomas Mercer, one of the first Seattle commissioners, gave a rousing Fourth of July speech on the south shore of the lake that he suggested be called "Lake Union" for its position between Lake Washington and the sea. Within a few years, the south shore of the lake became a major industrial center, first for milling lumber floated in from the forests to the east of Seattle. In the 1870's there was even a short-lived boom in coal that was mined in South King county and transported to saltwater docks by wagon, barge and the first rail line in the Northwest.

So Webster hoped to capitalize on the growth of the lumber business, new shipyards, and the increase in marine traffic in general. But competition was fierce in the mosquito fleet of small tugs and ferries, and Webster found he could earn additional income by renting space in his moorage to city folk who had discovered the new sport of pleasure boating.

He set up a second business, the Fremont Boat Market, to rent, buy or sell boats of all kinds and was successful enough in the early 1920s to run for city council in 1928. He sold the boat business to O.H. "Doc" Freeman, the enthusiastic young man who was working for him on evenings and weekends. The Fremont boat business has been in the Freeman family ever since. The Great Depression hit the mills hard and the demand for tug services took a downturn, but Doc kept the company afloat by finding yachts, tugs and launches at bargain prices.

He would repair them for his own use or to sell, as well as selling boats on consignment. As the economy improved, he opened his own boatyard and built some fine motor yachts. In 1938, he purchased the moorage and the old car ferry Airline and turned it into a floating office, shop, and home for his growing family.

World War Two brought new naval construction to shipyards like Lake Union Dry Dock, where wooden minesweepers were built. There was more work for tugboats, but the US Coast Guard commandeered the Airline for a barracks in 1942. The family packed up and moved into a two-story fish-buying barge for the next five years.

After the war, Doc attended all the auctions and became a dealer in war surplus boats including minesweepers, tugs, landing craft, launches, and lifeboats by the dozen. By 1947, he could afford to erect a new building onshore at his moorage with room for his chandlery business on the ground floor and the family on the second floor. Mark Freeman grew up here in the shadow of the Aurora Bridge and was at home on the water from an early age. (The chandlery was sold to the employees in 1952 but kept the name "Doc Freeman's" and had a loyal following until it ran into financial troubles and was declared bankrupt in 2003.)

By then, Mark Freeman was well on his way to becoming an expert boat handler. In 1949, when he was 13, he bought his first workboat for $99. It was a small ex-Navy dory he called the Seal Rock that he soon paid for by salvaging logs around Lake Washington. At 16, he was ready to move up to a bigger boat, so he found a 36-foot surplus landing barge, with steel plating over a plywood hull. It had a powerful 6-71 GM diesel, so Mark fitted a special tow bitt and called it the Jerkmore. Working alone, he went after bigger logs, did occasional towing jobs, and paid off the $2,500 cost within a year.

Mark attended the University of Washington for a year and a half, where he got "an A in sailing," he says with a smile. When his draft notice came, he naturally chose the US Coast Guard and was posted to Grays Harbor 1955-59. He saw plenty of action at the Westport station and quickly qualified as a "boat runner." He was promoted to the rank of Boatswain's Mate after he led the rescue of the crew of the Liberty ship S/S Seagate after it struck the Sonora Reef.

Mark saved a total of 37 lives in his Coast Guard career, both sport and commercial fishermen. (He belatedly received a CG medal for the Liberty ship rescue in the mail – 44 years later!) He wasted no time on his return to civilian life; he bought the Fremont Boat business in 1959 only three years before his father's death. It was popularly referred to as the "boat lot" and was regularly packed on the weekend with would-be boaters inspecting as many as 80 boats for sale-"from $25 rowboats to $100,000 freighters up to 180 feet long," as one newspaper reported.

He readily admitted he soon grew tired of the boat brokerage business and longed to get back on a tug. After four years, he finally accepted he was not cut out to be a salesman, sold most of the inventory, and turned the property into a private moorage. He devoted himself to towboating full-time and eventually separated the moorage and tug businesses. He took after his father in keeping his overhead down while building a small fleet with older tugs – many of them wood and most past their prime. Of the many boats he owned, he recalled a couple: the 45-foot wooden Manila built in 1913 with a 60-HP Atlas that he re-powered with a 140-HP gas engine and later a 6-71 GM diesel, and the 45-foot Standfast, a World War Two steel army tug he bought in 1972.

"Then I got a lucky break when I won second place in the lottery," he recalled when I visited the moorage in 1994. "They took half my money in tax, but I spent the other $25,000 plus my savings and a loan from my mother to buy the 65-foot wooden Sovereign. We'd never have got her otherwise. She had been re-powered with a surplus navy propulsion system of four 200-HP Jimmies, two on each shaft. So when the big crab boats started arriving here from the Gulf Coast in the 1980's, we had a boat with some power to spare to move them around."

In 1990, Mark took another risk, this time on an oversize seine skiff originally built for the University of Washington. It was around 50 percent bigger than normal, to test an experimental offshore fishing net, and he reckoned it would make a great addition to his fleet. The 24-foot by 12-foot Spitfire was a real ugly duckling: slab-sided, blunt-bowed and completely open to the weather. But it became the go-to small boat that he began calling his "portable bow thruster."

In 1995, he sold the business to his son Erik and high-school pal Tom Bulson, but he remained active in the business for the next decade. When Mark spotted another big skiff in Everett in 1997, they brought it into the fleet and renamed it the Stinger. It too was a success and spent two years in Siberia on a charter. Eventually, the 20-foot by 14-foot aluminum hull began to corrode badly – Tom scrapped it but saved the engine and driveline for future use.

By the early 2000s, Mark, Erik and Tom all agreed it was past time they stopped standing out in all weather in the small tugs – the replacement would need a wheelhouse or they would build one. The young partners proudly followed the Freeman tradition of finding vintage boats and upgrading them. Besides being a captain, Tom Bulson is a skilled mechanic, equally capable in metal, woodwork, and all the systems found on a workboat. His talents have been essential to accomplish the extensive re-builds they have undertaken and stay within their budget.

In 2014, they found a vintage 32-foot tug with a 300-HP GM 8V92 and a 49-inch wheel that they re-named Yankee. Tom built it a new aluminum house to replace the old wooden one, and seems – at least for the moment – to have completed the evolution from the Spitfire to a more capable and comfortable small partner to the company's big boat, the 51-foot Dixie.

Today, the Fremont fleet consists of nine tugs, ranging in size from the 15-foot, 135-HP Jeep to the 51-foot, 575-HP Dixie – able to move anything from pontoons and houseboats to large trawlers and small freighters. Most of them are the traditional single-screw type that demand an experienced hand on the helm and are considered outmoded and underpowered by modern standards. However, Fremont still gets the job done with the minimum of fuss, as I saw when I rode along with Tom and deckhand Richie Borneman on a blustery day in November.

We had no difficulty tying on at the bow of the 180-foot Bering Sea crabber/processor F/V Courageous in the Ship Canal. The wind was gusting to 30 knots with Erik confidently handling the stern in the Yankee as they turned the ship around and returned it to the dock.

The next job, later in the week, was definitely not routine: assisting Global Diving & Salvage in the clean up of a big November 1 fire in a moorage just across the lake. After the divers had raised four large motor yachts and pumped them out, Erik and Tom towed them to a dock where they were lifted out and demolished. (In the past, Fremont was often the first responder to lakeside emergencies.)

Peter Marsh

The 51-foot Dixie is seen from the Ballard Bridge returning from a job near Fishermens Terminal.

Around 90 percent of Fremont's work is still done inside the Ballard locks, where the fishing industry provides the bulk of their work; there are also small ships, barges and houseboats to be moved. But there are still no scheduled runs, the partners confirmed – many days they are literally waiting for the phone to ring. That means long hours and short vacations for the partners, who are competing with the big outfits with full staffs for the ship-handling work.

"One of our selling points is we can be at work ten minutes after we get a call," Erik pointed out. With service that available, even Foss Maritime is a customer, often calling on Fremont to move boats out of their own dry docks. As long as they can keep this company spirit alive, there should be a demand for their service, and there will be a place for this iconic company on Lake Union.


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