Jim Dunlap ’70 says he learned the family business “from the mud up.”
Today one of several Dunlaps in the water transportation business runs a tugboat and freight company with ports in Everett and LaConner. But his first job working for his Uncle Gene’s towing business came in the 1960s when Jim was just a teen.
His task was to “dog” deadhead logs mired in the mud flats around Fidalgo Island. At low tide, young Jim would wade out and chain empty barrels to the logs. When the tide came in, the barrels would float to the surface and pull the logs loose. Then at high tide, he would go out in a boat and round up the timber and tow it in. “It was terrible work in the summertime,” says Dunlap. When his father Jim Dunlap ’36 and uncle brought him out of the mud to work for Dunlap Towing as a deckhand, “It was heaven to come to work on a tugboat.”
Gene Dunlap started Dunlap Towing in 1925 with three small tugs and several scows. At the time, almost all the traffic and transportation in the region took place on the Sound and the rivers that ran into it.
Jim’s father was Gene’s younger half-brother. He started spending time on the Dunlap boats when he was just 12. The story goes that the crew would put him to work steering while they rounded up logs from the water.
The senior Jim attended Washington State College in the mid-1930s. “He went over there and it was the middle of winter. It was snowing,” says his son. He was worried to be so far from home. But then “a Sig Ep met him at the train station” and took him to the house, says Dunlap. That was the start of three generations of Dunlaps going to Washington State and several of them joining the Pullman chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon.
After graduating, the senior Jim Dunlap returned to Puget Sound to work for his big brother Gene and the towing company. At that time, the Dunlaps had a growing business transporting logs and grains down the Skagit River Delta and off to Seattle, and taking provisions up from the Sound to Mount Vernon. He worked on the boats until 1947, when he moved into the office and took on more management responsibilities.
The story of the Dunlap’s tugboat business is the story of maritime Puget Sound, built early by the timber business and fishing industry, and then expanded by agriculture and development.
In 1962, the older Jim and some of the other employees bought the company from Gene, and Jim became president. In the 1970s, when the company expanded into Everett, which had a deep-water port, “It opened up a lot of opportunity,” says Dunlap. With new business partners and more ocean-going tugs, as well as a number of lumberyards, the company grew. The younger Jim and his sister Gretchen followed their father’s path to Washington State. Jim returned to the business after graduation and took over from his father in 1987.
Today, out of ports in LaConner, Seattle, Olympia, and Everett, Dunlap Towing pulls plenty of business.
With its partners, Dunlap transports freight-laden barges to Hawaii and Alaska. The line-haul ocean towing tugs, including the Phyllis Dunlap, named for Jim’s mother, are up to 121 feet long and have as much as 5,100 horsepower. The Phyllis Dunlap requires a five-member crew and carries 153,000 gallons of fuel.
A team of smaller tugs works around Puget Sound transporting logs and assisting other vessels.
All three of Dunlap’s children have had some connection to WSU and to the family business. His daughter Tamsyn ’06, worked out of the Everett office for several years. His daughter Meghan ’04 is a dispatcher for Northland Services out of the Port of Seattle. And his son Jim ’09 is working for Northland in Alaska.