Mystery Object: The Case of the Rusty Anchor
Updated: Apr 1, 2020
by Sarah Czarnecki
If you take a walk around the harbor and pass by the Harbor History Museum, you may notice a rather large, very corroded anchor hanging out at the front of the building. It lays flat across a bed of rocks, quietly off to the side, rather unassuming and quite easily missed. As with many items in a museum, it is not always the object itself that is exciting—although a one-ton anchor is certainly not something one encounters every day—but rather the rich story that lies behind it. Where was this anchor found? Is there a wreck associated with it? How on earth did it end up out of the water, resting silently in front of our museum? To answer these questions, we decided to investigate this large hunk of metal to uncover the mystery of the "Old Ross Anchor."
What We Know
The anchor was donated to the museum by Adam Ross Jr. in 1998. It was found by his father, Adam John Ross, while he was fishing off the shore of Steilacoom, Washington. Imagine how surprising it would be find this anchor in your net when you're expecting a net full of fish.
But how did the anchor come to be on the seafloor amidst the Steilacoom fishing grounds? What type of vessel would've used it? As you can see from the photo, there aren’t too many identifying features of this anchor. The corrosion has eaten away at the shank and any inscription that would’ve been stamped or cast onto it. This corrosion suggests that it was underwater for a long time. The other part of the anchor that's missing is the original stock or crosspiece, which would have been made of wood. The lack of a hole in the anchor's shank led our shipwright to determine that the wooden stock would have been clamped into place like the one in the diagram below.
To date, we've not found reference to a wreck off the shore of Steilacoom that would have matched the type of ship that typically used this type of anchor. But we do know that many tall ships came and went from the shores of Steilacoom since its founding in 1850. Some were lumber schooners, some were merchant ships, others were the last vestige of clipper ships that rounded the Cape to Pacific waters.
This drawing of early Steilacoom held in the Washington State Historical Society Collection shows the two and three-masted schooners that would have typically used this type of anchor. Some may have come from San Francisco, others from as far away as Boston and New York. Schooners like these are believed to have been in use until the 1920s, although many people believe their heyday ended as early as the 1860s.
Since there is no known wreck that is associated with this anchor and no inscription or maker's mark that can be seen, we still have a puzzle with a missing piece. And although we don't know which ship it came from, we do know a few other key facts. According to the Steilacoom Historical Museum Association, commercial fishing in Steilacoom had largely died out by around 1915, although even today occasional fall fishing opens in the South Sound. If Adam Ross "caught it" while fishing, then "the find" had to have been between 1910-1950. And if the anchor was lost from a schooner that had moored at Steilacoom between 1850-1900, that would make the anchor some 120-170 years old.
Salt water and rust ate away at the anchor's iron surface, requiring an intensive treatment and application of penetrating epoxy to help prevent the rust from continuing to flake away the anchor's surface. It was placed in a setting of rocks to mimic the Northwest's seafloor. A big thanks to Erin Rockery for doing this installation.
Who Was Adam Ross?
The Ross family started fishing in and around Gig Harbor starting when John Ross, born in Dalmatia (formerly Yugoslavia), came to the United States in the early 1900s. He married Eva Peterson Ross and they had three sons: Johnnie, Emmett and Adam, all three of whom followed in their father’s footsteps. John Ross owned several boats throughout his career, including the Bogdan and Brooklyn. The fishing legacy of his family does not entirely begin, however, until his sons became fully involved in the business with the purchase the vessel Home II in 1924.
Although Home II was purchased by John Ross, it was operated by Adam Ross, the only boat Adam skippered until his retirement in 1966. It is likely that this was the boat Adam was fishing when our mysterious anchor was hauled aboard.
Research on the anchor led to its recently being added to the international database of The Big Anchor Project, making it the first large anchor in the Puget Sound region to be featured in that project.
Wondering where Steilacoom is? Find it outlined in red on this map. How far do you think it is from Gig Harbor to Steilacoom? Figure it out on Google Maps.
Want to know what life was like aboard a tall masted schooner in the 1800s? Get this great activity packet from the National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/safr/learn/education/upload/Sailor_intercept.pdf
Makovich, Lee. “The Ross Brothers: At Home on the Salmon Banks” Fisherman’s News, October 1996.
Ross, Ronald. Interview, February 2010. (On file at Harbor History Museum)
Ross Ronald. Interview, 1998. (On file at Harbor History Museum)
Rosemary Ross, Interview, 2019.
View of Steilacoom, 1860. Washington State Historical Society, 2003.x.xx