Fireboat No. 1 - Atlas Obscura

Fireboat No. 1

This landmark vessel dry-berthed in Tacoma's harbor served in emergencies and ceremonies for more than 50 years. 


As a working-class port city, the industry and commerce of Tacoma, Washington, was historically intertwined with its harbor, filled with sawmills, lumberyards, and wooden structures. And for over 50 years, Tacoma harbor’s greatest defender was Fireboat No. 1, the city’s emergency rescue boat that patrolled Tacoma’s 38 miles of waterfront shoreline. Now retired, today the fireboat is a municipal landmark kept on dry berth along the same bay it once served.

By the 1920s, fireboats were a common sight in American port cities, and Fireboat No. 1 is typical of the era. The boat was designed by T.M. Rowlands, a professor of naval engineering at the University of Washington, and built in 1929 by the local Coastline Shipbuilding Company. It is one of the few remaining and best-preserved fireboats from the time period. A 96-foot long triple-screw vessel, Fireboat No. 1 was seen as the latest in firefighting technology at the time of its construction. It was best known for its primary water cannon, named “Big Bertha,” which was able to shoot 6,500 gallons of water per minute at a distance of up to 475 feet.

For 53 years, Fireboat No. 1 patrolled Tacoma’s waters, with crews of up to 12 firefighters on board. It responded to every major emergency in Tacoma, including fires, potential drownings, shipwrecks, and even a case of arson. It would also be the star of the show in many waterfront parades and patriotic festivals, as Big Bertha would shoot water into the air in celebration. A 1976 survey found that Fireboat No. 1 was the second-most recognizable landmark in the city, edged out only by Mt. Rainier.

In 1982, the city purchased two new hoverboats, and Fireboat No. 1 was retired from service. A movement quickly gathered to preserve the fireboat as a museum and national landmark, and in March 1986, the boat was placed into permanent dry berth on Tacoma’s Ruston Way. Over the years, some of the enthusiasm for the boat’s preservation was lost, and questions arose over the ultimate jurisdiction responsible for its maintenance, and it began to rust and rot. While significant repairs remain costly, a cadre of volunteers, including the local firefighters union and rotary club, have joined Metro Parks Tacoma in repainting and restoring the civic landmark as best they can.

Today, Fireboat No. 1 looks a little worse for wear, but remains a landmark of Tacoma’s waterfront history. The fireboat is yards from Tacoma’s waterfront fire station, and “Fully Involved,” a memorial to fallen firefighters by sculptor Larry Perkins. Together, the area provides a fitting memorial for the pageantry, quick response, and sacrifices made by the members of Tacoma’s fire department throughout the city’s history. 

Know Before You Go

Tacoma Fireboat No. 1 is free to view and open to the public. The Tacoma Fallen Firefighters Memorial is located in the same complex, but on the other side of the parking lot.

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