Fir, 1940 (WLM-212)

Jan. 4, 2021

Fir, 1940

WAGL / WLM-212
Nicknames: Mother Fir; Building 212

Length: 174 ft., 8 1/2 in. 

Beam: 32 ft.

Draft: 11 ft., 3 in.

Displacement: 885 tons

Dates of Construction: keel laid on January 7, 1939; launched on March 22, 1939

Commissioned: 1 October 1940

Decommissioned: 1 October 1991; transferred to the Liberty Maritime Museum in Sacramento, California on 30 September 2002.

Designer: U.S. Lighthouse Service

Builder: Moore Dry Dock Company, Oakland, California

Cost: $389,746

Machinery: Originally 2 triple-expansion steam, horizontal engines; 2 oil-fired Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers; twin screws; converted to diesel in 1951: 2 four-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse 38D 8-1/8; 2 Detroit Diesel 100KW generators. 

Shaft horsepower: 1000 (steam); 1,350 (diesel)

Maximum speed: 12.0 knots

Economic speed and endurance: 11.5 knots for 2,000 miles

Complement: 4 officers, 1 warrant, 69 men (as of 1945)

Radar: SO-1 (1945); CS (1966)

Sonar: WEA-2 (1945); UNQ-1 (1966)

Armament: 1 x 3-inch gun; 2 x 20mm/80 single-mount cannons; unknown number of .50 caliber machine guns; 2 depth charge tracks (1945); armament was removed at the end of World War II and Fir remained unarmed as of 1966.

Deck gear/boom: electrically powered; 20-ton hoisting capacity (1940); replaced in 1982 by a hydraulic boom and A-frame system with a 15-ton hoisting capacity.


Construction of Fir

Fir was constructed by the Moore Dry Dock Company, a shipyard located at the Foot of Adeline Street in Oakland, California. The contract was let by the U.S. Lighthouse Service on August 17, 1938. The cost of construction-$389,746-was covered by funding from the Public Works Administration (PWA); additional fittings brought the price closer to $400,000. Plans for the previously built sister ship Hollyhock were used as the contract plans for Fir. The Superintendent of Lighthouses in Portland, Oregon, F.C. Hingsburg, noted:

"The design of the FIR has been reviewed with interest, but no changes are indicated for her operation in this district as this question has not been raised by the Bureau. There are no spare state rooms for keeper or lightship personnel when making patrols for supplying outlying stations and carrying liberty parties. Some of the state rooms are small and valuable space is taken up with 4 ft. berths. These could well be standard single width size, 3'-6" x 6'-6" to take standard mattresses and bedding sheets and give some additional room space. It is noted that the forecastle is in the old style arrangement with sixteen men occupying crews space and not in keeping with modern trends on new ships. Correspondence in April 1939 indicated additions and changes were made to some of the quarters aft in the main and upper decks."

    The first available progress report for work completed on Fir during October 1938 listed 133 workers completing 3,642 hours on the project. In November 1938, the number of workers had increased to 311, logging 8,010 1/4 hours. Seventy-five percent of the frames had been laid out and five percent were riveted. Cast-iron work had been started by the Phoenix Iron Works, and brass castings had been received from the Oakland Brass Foundry. In December 1938, the number of workers had increased to 515, logging 16,299.57 hours. The keel was 90 percent fabricated; the stern frame was cast on December 30th. The frames and reverse frames were 90 percent riveted, the loftwork completed, and the floors assembled and riveted. The stringers, side keelsons, built-in fuel tanks, lower and main deck beams and plating had also been fabricated. Lighthouse Service Inspector W. H. Griffin noted:

"Marine Ways are fitted for laying keel January 2.  Fabrication and assembly of steel keeps well up with first ship 'Walnut'.  Laying of this keel will make for better work by doing away with most of the last minute work on first vessel."

     Fir's keel was laid on January 7, 1939.  The progress report for January 1939 indicated there were 788 workers on the payroll, logging 31,332.72 hours. The stem was in place with the cant framing and floors completed.  The upper deckhouse, pilothouse, and radio room were being fabricated while the main deckhouse, including divisional bulkheads, was being erected. Inspector Griffin remarks:

"Work on Tender 'FIR' has gone ahead well for the time under way. Riveting and welding of hull following well up to erection of steel. Struts for this vessel up for inspection at Columbia Steel Plant tomorrow. Moxley Boilers received January 27th, 1939. ..."

     The February 1939 progress report indicated there were 1,287 workers, logging in 57,229 hours, working primarily below the main deck.  The hull was close to completion with fuel, freshwater, and ballast tanks finished, and bulkheads had been completed below the main deck.  Some delays were reported due to late arrivals of materials, such as wrought iron pipe and lumber for the fenders.

     Fir was launched at the Moore Dry Dock Company Shipyard on March 22, 1939. Her sponsor, Harriet Birta Mason of Sacramento, California, was the daughter of Major General Wallace A. Mason, a good friend and "war comrade" of Assistant Secretary of Commerce J. M. Johnson. During the month Fir was launched, the number of workers was reduced to 836, logging in 37,206 hours.  The boilers were installed as well as the steering engine, chain lockers, sea chests, and all tanks.

     The progress report for April 1939, listed 498 workers, logging 37,643.12 hours. All deck machinery including hoisting engine and control gear, anchor windlass and chain stoppers, boat hoister, and capstan was completed. All pumps and fuel oil heaters were installed as well as chain and lamp lockers and store rooms forward and aft. Inspector Griffin remarked:

"Vessel hauled out on Marine Ways to complete testing and painting. Hull work is about complete. Wheels and rudder installed. Auxiliaries being installed. Boilers tests and work going smoothly although falling back a little."

     The May 1939 report listed 210 workers logging 30,809 hours. Cork installation was being completed in the quarters for the superintendent, officers, and crew; windows were being installed in the main deck, upper deck, and pilothouse. Outside and inside doors and hardware had been installed. The davits, foundations, and chocks for boats were completed as well as the steering gear engine, rudder, quadrant, and arrangement. The main engines, hand gear, stern tubes, propeller struts, bearings, line and propeller shafting were completed in the shop and the propellers, condenser, and feed water heater with grease extractor completely installed on the ship. The inspector noted, "Vessel to undock June 6th, mast and engines to be installed next day. All work progressing satisfactory and no doubt of keeping delivery dates."

     The last progress report on file is for June 1939. With 162 workers, logging 23,767 hours, furniture was being installed; air ports and lights completed; components of the electrical system were either in the yard or had been installed; fire extinguishers had been installed; interior communication including telegraph system, bells and pulls, electric bells, alarm and ships bell, was 75 percent completed. Cementing of tanks and bilges was listed as being complete and the piping systems close to completion. Skylights were complete but not tested; ventilation of the engine room, fire room, officers quarters, and crews quarters was 80 percent complete. Derrick mast and boom as well as standing and running rigging, main mast, ensign and jack staff had been completed. Painting of the underwater body and boot topping had been completed and was well underway for the exterior of the hull above the waterline, superstructure, quarters, and pilothouse. Red lead paint was used on machinery casing and radio room, galley, and engine room. Anchors, cleats, chocks, freeing ports, hand rails, grab rails, and ladders were complete or close to completion.

     Although launched under the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the vessel was completed under the U.S. Coast Guard, making her the last U.S. Lighthouse Service tender constructed. Trials were held on San Francisco Bay on August 17, 1939. The Trial Board consisted of R. R. Tinkham, Chief Lighthouse Engineer, Portland, Oregon; W. C. Dibrell, Superintendent of Lighthouses, Ketchikan, Alaska, with F. C. Hingsburg, Superintendent of Lighthouses, Portland, Oregon, acting as his alternate; and F. H. Conant, Assistant Lighthouse Engineer, San Francisco, California. The following day, August 18, 1939, Fir departed for Portland, Oregon. On December 30, 1939, she received orders to proceed to Lake Washington, Seattle, Washington. She was commissioned as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir (WAGL-212) on October 1, 1940. 

     Fir was outfitted with several small boats: a 24-foot cargo boat on the starboard side; a 26-foot, 3-inch surf boat on the port side; and a 17-foot, 3-inch powered dinghy on the upper deck, port side. Fir was also equipped with a radiotelephone as part of the PWA project; radio equipment was ordered from the General Lighthouse Depot in New York. Fir was also outfitted with a deep-water "Type 480" fathometer. Specifications indicated that the equipment will comprise all necessary units, including cable and ship fittings as necessary to provide continuous, direct reading, automatic depth indications by echo sounding principles, on board lighthouse tenders in the U.S. Lighthouse service.  Major units will include an indicator, a receiver-amplifier, an impact oscillator, a resistance unit, and two hydrophones with a hydrophone tank.  The fathometer will indicate depths in coastal, lake, or river waters, but to obtain the guaranteed accuracy, the motor speed must be adjusted to suit the salinity and temperature of the water in which observations are being made or suitable corrections must be made to the observed depths. The maximum power drawn from the line will be about 800 watts, but the average power will be about 400 watts at 110-115 volts.

     Two bow ornaments costing $28 each were ordered on December 30, 1938.  Nine marine clocks, two ensign flags, one signal flag, the 1939 American Nautical Almanac, U.S. Coast Pilot, Pacific Coast, International Code of Signals, and Bowditch's American Practical Navigator were also requisitioned.

Fir's Sister Ships

     Fir was part of the Hollyhock class, a three-ship class designed as coastwide (type "A") tenders for use by the Lighthouse Service.  The first ship of the class, Hollyhock, was contracted in March 1936, launched on March 24, 1937, and commissioned on August 7, 1937.  Constructed by the Defoe Boat & Motor Works, Bay City, Michigan, Hollyhock was built to replace the aging USLHT SumacHollyhock was first assigned to duty in the 12th Lighthouse District and was homeported in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  She was designated WAGL-220 at the start of World War II.  Hollyhock worked out of Detroit, Michigan, from 1959 to 1962 and Miami, Florida, from 1962 until she was decommissioned from the U.S. Coast Guard on March 31, 1982.  She was sold and served for a time as Good News Mission Ship.  She was sunk as an artificial reef off Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1990.

     The third sister ship, Walnut, was contracted to the same shipyard as Fir and was launched in the same month on March 18, 1939; however, Walnut was commissioned on June 27, 1939, more than 15 months earlier than Fir.  Replacing USLHT Marigold, Walnut serviced aids to navigation in Lake Huron and Lake Superior until June 1941, when she was reassigned to the Hawaii Territory.  Designated WAGL-252 in January 1942, Walnut was redesignated WLM-252 in January 1965.  Walnut was assigned to Miami, Florida, from 1954 to 1967, and San Pedro, California, from 1967 until she was decommissioned from the U.S. Coast Guard in 1982.  In July 1982 Walnut was transferred to the government of Honduras, and was renamed Yojoa (FNH-252) in 1989.

Fir Characteristics

     Fir is 174 feet, 8 1/2 inches in overall length; 32 feet in breadth; 11 feet, 3 inches in draft; and displaces 885 tons.  Measurements at decommissioning were the same except the extreme beam was listed as 34 feet and her length between perpendiculars as 163 feet, 6 inches.  Her hull is steel and her superstructure steel and wood. Her propulsion is twin screw and, when launched, she had two triple-expansion steam engines.  Her Diesel engines at decommissioning were two four-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse 38D 8-1/8, with a shaft horsepower of 1,350, and two Detroit Diesel 100KW generators.  She had a maximum cruising speed of 12 knots or a radius of 1,824 nautical miles.  Her normal complement was six officers and 24 enlisted men, which increased to 41 enlisted men during wartime.  In 1991, she had four officers, two warrants, and 35 enlisted men.

Tenders in the Pacific Northwest

     The first revenue cutter dispatched to the Northwest was the topsail schooner Jefferson Davis, which sailed into Puget Sound on September 28, 1854.  The first lighthouse tender to serve the Pacific coast was Shubrick, a wooden-hulled sidewheeler built in Philadelphia in 1857.  After arriving on the West Coast, she assisted in the construction of the first lighthouses in Washington Territory.  She served double duty as a buoy tender and a revenue cutter, carrying three 12-pound cannons and small arms.  Shubrick serviced the entire Pacific coast until 1880, when a second vessel, Manzanita, was assigned the northwest portion and Shubrick continued to serve the lower Pacific coast.  As traffic increased in Northwest waters, so did the need for aids to navigation, and Manzanita was joined by Columbine, a U.S. Army Engineers vessel, to help maintain the increasing number of aids.  After Manzanita sank in the Columbia River off Warrior Rock, Oregon, a second Manzanita was constructed.

     When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service, the 13th District had four tenders in service: Heather, Rose, Manzanita, and Rhododendron.  Upon the arrival of Fir, Heather was removed from duty; she was later loaned to the Army for war service and never returned. Two tenders were commissioned and assigned to the 13th Naval District during World War II: Basswood and Bluebell.  The tenders performed their regular duties during the war but were equipped with small arms, depth charge racks, and deck guns for protection against enemy submarines.

Tenders at the Time of Fir's Construction

     The [Coast Guard] Engineer's Digest of September 1939 included the following description of a lighthouse tender:

"Lighthouse Tenders are used for general duty which consists mainly of servicing navigational aids and supplying necessities to lighthouses and lightships. In order to perform these duties the vessel must be able to carry personnel, cargo, fuel and water. In addition to the above, the vessel must have adequate deck space for working, storing and servicing buoys. In order to lift the buoys with their chains and sinkers, the vessels are equipped with derricks of a capacity commensurate with the size and duties of the vessel. In order that the buoys may be worked alongside, with reasonable safety to personnel, low freeboard is essential. The large tenders are equipped with booms approximately fifty feet long with a working capacity of twenty tons. The vessels are of medium speed, in general rather shoal draft, and are usually twin screw due to the requirement of handling heavy weights over the side, coupled with a low freeboard requirement. The larger tenders are designed for open sea work, a smaller type being used for bays and sounds, and still smaller type for protected waters. Vessels are powered with steam, diesel, and diesel-electric drives."

     In 1940 the U.S. Coast Guard had to maintain a grand total of 30,420 aids to navigation in U.S. waters. These included lighted aids (lighthouses, lightships, and buoys), fog signals, unlighted buoys, and daymarks. In the 13th U.S. Coast Guard District, which included Washington and Oregon, it was reported that at the time of consolidation in 1939, there were 1,362 aids to navigation, including "31 major light stations, four lightships, 133 fog signals, 12 radiobeacons, 672 minor light station including lighted buoys, and 676 unlighted buoys and daymarks."

     The hazardous nature of work on the Northwest tenders during the 1940s was described as follows:

"The jobs confronting the buoy tenders were much the same-relieving buoys annually, replacing and recharging batteries, installing acetylene accumulators, and establishing new aids. The routine, however, was never monotonous. Treacherous waters, dangerous shoals, fog, storms, and the nature of the equipment made the task of the buoy man a hazardous as well as a highly specialized operation. Winter activities were especially grueling, as sharp winds blew icy water on the men as they worked, while the rolling ship with its slippery deck made each movement a hazardous one."

Fir's General Configuration

     Starting below the waterline and working up, Fir's hold and lower deck, moving aft forward, consist of the rudder, auxiliary rudder, steering gear room above after peak tank, crew's berthing above aft freshwater tanks, auxiliary engine room, main engine room, fuel tanks, workshop, main hold, more crew's berthing above the boatswain's locker and forward freshwater tanks, chain locker and forepeak tank. The engine room contains the twin diesel engines that replaced the steam engines in 1951, as well as two generators for electricity while underway and boilers for heat.

     Next, the main deck consists of the rear bulwarks, officers' quarters, linen locker, commanding officer's locker, sick bay, upper engine room, galley and mess; outside are the king post supporting the hoisting mechanism, cargo hatch, buoy port, crew's wardroom, and paint locker. 

     The upper deck includes davits anchoring two lifeboats, boat winch, main mast, staterooms, engine room trunk, offices, uptakes for funnel, wardroom, and the topping winch and boom of the hoisting mechanism. The officers' stateroom is relatively large and contained wooden furniture and a screen door leading to the boat deck. The wardroom, where the officers ate and worked, is unusual for cutters in that it offers a view of the buoy deck. The forecastle deck includes various vents and the anchor windlass. 

     The bridge deck level is occupied by the wheel house with the control house for the hoisting mechanism above. Bridge equipment includes the helm controlling three hydraulic rudders; radar; radio; engine controls for twin shafts, port and starboard; gyro and magnetic compass; searchlight controls; captain's chair; and voice tube to flying bridge. A photo of the old bridge was kept to show contrast. Both windows and balcony provide a view of the buoy deck.

Fir Operational History

     With the exception of a short stint in Long Beach, California, where she temporarily replaced Walnut after her decommissioning in 1982, Fir spent her entire career operating out of Seattle, Washington. At the start of her career, Fir relieved the old USLHT Heather of her duty tending aids in the Puget Sound area.  She reported for duty at the Coast Guard Buoy Repair Depot in Salmon Bay near the Ballard Locks.  The Seattle Times reported on June 9, 1940, that she was "one of the most modern vessels of her type" with both a gyro stabilized compass and a radio direction finder.  Within a month of the article's publication, a depth sounder was installed, completing the state-of-the-art electronics package.

     Fir started her career under the command of Chief Warrant Officer Ole Eriksen, a seasoned Lighthouse Service master who had last served on USLHT HeatherFir's duties included resupplying coal, potable water, food, and other vital provisions to lightships and lighthouses in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and on the Washington coast.  Fir also transported personnel on and off these remote stations and delivered mail and personal goods. In addition to servicing the manned aids, Fir maintained the automated acetylene buoys throughout the waters of northwest Washington.

     In 1940, there were at least 21 active light stations in Washington waters: Admiralty Head, Straits of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound; Alki Point, Elliott Bay, Puget Sound; Browns Point, Commencement Bay, East Entrance, Puget Sound; Burrows Island, Rosario Strait; Cape Disappointment, Columbia River mouth; Cape Flattery, Tatoosh Island at the entrance to Strait of Juan de Fuca; Destruction Island; Grays Harbor, south entrance to Grays Harbor; Lime Kiln, Dead Mans Bay, San Juan Island; Marrowstone Point, Admiralty Inlet; Mukilteo, east side of Possession Sound; New Dungeness, Admiralty Island, Strait of Juan de Fuca; North Head, Columbia River mouth; Patos Island, Straits of Georgia, Puget Sound; Point No Point, Kitsap Peninsula, Puget Sound; Point Robinson, East End Maury Island, Puget Sound; Point Wilson, entrance to Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound; Slip Point, Clallam Bay, Strait of Juan de Fuca; Smith Island, Strait of Juan de Fuca; Turn Point, Prevost Harbor, Stuart Island; and West Point, Elliott Bay, Puget Sound.

     Several were remote offshore light stations where the transfer of personnel was often a dangerous and time-consuming task.  "At Cape Flattery, Washington, for instance, keepers had to be hoisted by derrick onto the island in an open box dangling from a hook.  A small boat had to be worked in under the box as personnel were transferred, sometimes under rough sea conditions. Fir, like other tenders, had to routinely go into water where no other type of boat dared venture." Fir also served three lightship stations: Swiftsure Bank at the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca; Umatilla Reef off La Push; and Columbia at the mouth of the Columbia River at the Washington-Oregon border.

     During World War II, Fir was placed under the direction of the Navy and painted gray.  Armament installed included 50-caliber machine guns, one 3-inch gun, and depth charges.  Her war duties included standing picket duty, towing gunnery targets, and patrolling in and around Washington and Oregon waters. The "History of United States Coast Guard Thirteenth Naval District 1917-1945" noted:

"With the scarcity of Coast Guard Cutters in this [13th] district during the war, a vast amount of assistance work fell upon the tenders. The increased size of the fishing fleet had the effect of causing more rescue operations, and in these, the tenders did an extraordinarily fine job."

After the war, Fir returned to her regular routine tending the many buoys marking Washington's waterways. 

     Maintaining and servicing buoys means long hours of hard, often dangerous work.  The buoy's anchor, tons of cement with chain attached, hangs suspended alongside her low buoy deck.  Taking continuous bearings, the ship maneuvers into the exact position matching the buoy's charted location.  On command, the huge anchor is released and plunges to the bottom of the sea, pulling row after row of heavy chain, clattering off the steel decks after it.  The freshly painted and serviced buoy, laying on its side on deck, is then hoisted aloft with the boom, swung over the side and released.  The ship backs away and another aid to navigation is back on the job.  Initially the bearings were taken with lead line and sightings from the bridge deck.  Now Global Positioning System satellites provide much more accurate, and quicker fixes.  The buoys, once lighted with acetylene, were updated to storage batteries and then to solar power. Fir lived long enough to witness these transitions over the years.

     In addition to servicing aids to navigation, Fir performed search and rescue, marine environmental protection, and law enforcement. Search and rescue missions included rescuing 19 people off the distressed MV Andalucia, which had caught fire off of Neah Bay on November 4, 1949; assisting MV Beliot Victory near Destruction Island on April 30, 1952; escorting USS Yuma, which had developed trouble while towing USS Tinian six miles south of Swiftsure Bank on February 19, 1958; and assisting in the search for a downed navy aircraft in Guemes Channel on March 14, 1963.  Recovery and salvage missions included salvaging a CG HO4S helicopter and delivering it to Port Angeles on November 11, 1962, and assisting in the recovery of a USAF T-34 aircraft on July 16, 1965.  Fir also helped fight a fire at the Todd Shipyard in Seattle on November 28, 1968.  Her last dramatic rescue occurred on July 5, 1990, when Fir saved the life of a mariner trapped on the bow of a burning pleasure boat on Shilsole Bay, extinguishing the fire and saving the boat.  On a lighter side, Fir patrolled the Maritime Day tugboat races in Elliott Bay on March 22, 1954, and the Lake Washington Gold Cup Regatta August 9 -11, 1958; and in June 1972 she transported 600,000 Chinook salmon fry to Squaxin Island to seed the local waters.

     In the 1980s, Fir assisted in the aftermath of two major oil spills. She was awarded a Unit Commendation for her work after the 833-foot Arco Anchorage grounded in Port Angeles, spilling 239,000 gallons of crude oil in 1985. After the Exxon Valdez went aground in 1988, Fir conducted the regular duties of USCGC Iris so that Iris could assist with the cleanup.

     As part of the Coast Guard's reclassification system, Fir was redesignated a Coastal Buoy Tender (WLM-212) in 1965.  The only mishap listed on a table compiled by the Cutter Operations Division in late 1990 is that Fir "grounded" on July 15, 1965, suffering minor damage.

     After a thorough inspection in 1985 identified the need for major repairs, restrictions were placed on Fir's coastal operations: 

"The vessel has been prohibited, at least temporarily, from servicing 9' buoys, and she is required to observe certain loading conditions while servicing 8' buoys. Her hull form is unusually susceptible to synchronous rolls.  Since Fir's usefulness is limited in exposed waters, a second WLB would be a more suitable vessel for performing ATON work in this district. The Seattle tender is required to respond to discrepancies along the coast whenever the Astoria tender is in a maintenance status; furthermore, it would be desirable to more evenly distribute the coastal ATON and ELT workload by routinely assigning the Seattle tender to duties along the coast."

     Repairs extended Fir's life for another four years, but the next cycle of repair work had a price tag of more than $2.5 million and would not have extended her service life beyond 1995.  Many felt it would be more cost effective to replace her with a modern tender.

     When USCGC Ingham was decommissioned on May 27, 1988, Fir became the Coast Guard's oldest cutter and was designated "Queen of the Fleet." She received gold hull numbers on May 30, 1988, for this distinction. Her durability may in part have been due to the fact she that served in a freshwater environment with limited exposure to heavy seas; the loving care provided by her captain and crew no doubt also played a role.

     Before decommissioning in 1991, Fir was responsible for 138 lighted and unlighted buoys in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound area. In the spirit of her original mission, Fir's last active-duty assignment was assisting in the rehabilitation of Cape Flattery Lighthouse on Tatoosh Island at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Original Equipment and Modifications to Fir

     Fir began her career equipped with two triple-expansion horizontal steam engines (1,000 combined steam horsepower) and two oil-fired Babcock and Wilcox watertube boilers. Her steel boom with hydraulic hoist had a 20-ton capacity. During an overhaul and conversion at the Todd Shipyard, Seattle, Washington, from February 1 to October 1, 1951, Fir was re-engined from steam to diesel with twin 1,350-horsepower Fairbanks-Morse diesel engines coupled with reduction gears.  She was the last American steam-powered tender to be dieselized. In 1974, two maneuvering rudders were added to improve her shiphandling and in 1982, a new hydraulic boom and A-frame system replaced the old electrically powered one, giving her the 30,000-pound hoisting capacity needed to work the nine-foot buoys and nine-ton sinkers found off the coast. Her electronics package was modernized during her career so that by the time of her decommissioning, she had five computer work stations, two radar, a variety of receivers and transmitters, a thermal imaging scope for damage control, and a computerized telephone system.

     The living spaces were modified in the late 1980s to provide a four-rack berthing area for female crew. Despite the modifications that were necessary for continued operation, Fir retains her original character and many of her original features, making her a unique legacy to the Lighthouse Service.

     Oak bannisters adorn the ladders, polished brass is throughout the bridge, many staterooms have the original wooden racks, desks, and wardrobes, and screen doors still open onto the weather decks. She has a classic lighthouse tender design, including a white pine "rub" rail 2 feet above the waterline, a spacious bridge with curved windows which roll down, outboard passageways on the maindeck, skylights in the engine room, and windows in the staterooms and engineroom looking out into the passageway.

Fir's Exceptional Significance

     Fir was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Secretary of the Interior on April 27, 1992, indicating that she is a property of exceptional national significance. Her summary of significance states:

"The tradition of aids to navigation in the United States dates to colonial times. One of the first actions of the new federal government was the establishment of lighthouses. Often built on isolated and rugged shores, lighthouses required a special type of vessel to service and maintain them. These vessels were lighthouse tenders, which, with lightships were the only seagoing aspects of the lighthouse service. ... Laid down at the end of the tenure of the Lighthouse Service, Fir was transferred to the newly formed Coast Guard in 1939 when launched. Essentially unmodified, with the exception of re-engining, Fir is the last surviving unaltered American lighthouse tender, and the last working member of the U.S. Lighthouse Service fleet. Fir represents a largely unheralded workaday-aspect of the lighthouse service, as well as the seafaring foundation from which the modern Coast Guard's buoy tender fleet evolved."

Decommissioning and Future Plans

     Fir was decommissioned on October 1, 1991, one year after her 50th birthday.  Over 600 attendees were on hand to honor the last surviving lighthouse tender in the United States. The oldest commissioned cutter award was presented to CDR Philip E. Sherer, commanding officer of the USCGC Storis, by Fir's commanding officer, LCDR Nutting. A decommissioning booklet was prepared to pay tribute to Fir. In describing her career, the booklet states:

"Through her 51 years, FIR's primary responsibilities of maintaining aids to navigation have remained the same. She has adapted to the major technological advances of the past five decades while still retaining the heritage of her Lighthouse Service days. During her career, she saw the power used to light buoys change from acetylene to solar while the hulls [of tenders] changed from riveted construction to steel or foam. She saw the art of positioning buoys advance from lead line and seaman's eye to computerized plotting and satellite positioning. She has also seen the replacement of lightships with large navigational buoys and light keepers by automated lighthouses."

     The Commander of the 13th Coast Guard District stated that upon her decommissioning:

"The physical condition of the FIR is excellent. She has been maintained in extraordinary condition for a vessel of her age and is, therefore, an ideal candidate for historic preservation. As a floating museum, she would provide an excellent opportunity for visitors of all ages to learn a little about the maritime history of Puget Sound. Virtually all areas of the ship including the engine room, living quarters, galley and buoy deck are readily accessible from the main deck. The pilothouse has beautiful woodwork and brass appointments."

     After decommissioning, Fir remained in Seattle for many years while efforts were made to turn her into a floating museum. When these efforts failed, she was transferred to the Maritime Administration (MARAD) facility, Suisun Bay, California, in 1997.  Her shafts and rudder locked, she was towed 930 miles from Seattle by USCGC Mariposa to San Francisco's Golden Gate where she was met by a commercial tug that towed her the rest of the way to Suisun Bay. Significant objects were removed from the vessel and stored at the U.S. Coast Guard facility in Forestville, Maryland.  

She was transferred to the Liberty Maritime Museum in Sacramento, California on 30 September 2002.

The above material was prepared in 2000-2001, for a documentation project to record the history of U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender Fir, (report HAER No. WA-167), by the following:

Candace Clifford, NCSHPO Consultant (historian)
Todd Croteau, HAER Industrial Archeologist (project leader)
Pete Brooks, HAER Delineator
Jet Lowe, HAER Photographer

National Park Service
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