Saint John, New Brunswick

The story below was taken from the Times Globe, Tuesday, May 5/98

Fog but no Horn
TURNED OFF: A Coast Guard staffer silenced the historic Partridge Island foghorn station yesterday. Now boaters and historians are sounding the alarm.

By Mac Trueman
Times Globe staff writer

Watercolour by J.C. Myles 1865
(Sketch provided by Horald Wright, from the Heritage Saint John Major J.T. McGowan collection)
This 1865 watercolour sketch by J.C. Myles depicts the world's
first steam-operated fog alarm, on Partridge Island. No horn bellowed
through the mist yesterday for possibly the first time in 139 years.

Robert Foulis   It was so quiet, you could almost hear Saint John's famous marine inventor Robert Foulis turning over in his grave.

   For what may be the first time in 139 years, the city was enshrouded yesterday in both fog and silence, after a Coast Guard technician threw the switch on the Partridge Island foghorn at about 3 p.m.

   The act silenced the oldest foghorn station in the world - one that has been operating without shutdown since its construction in 1859, except for a few repairs and equipment replacements, and an occasional bout of sunshine.

   The Saint John Power Boat Club is fuming. And Dallas Moyer, a 40-year veteran of commercial fishing, vowed yesterday he will mount a fax campaign against Ottawa to get the foghorn back.

   "It's not exactly a monumental occasion, "said Charles Hope, the Coast Guard senior navigational aids officer for the Saint John region. "It's not really much more than a person turning a light switch off. It's not a very complicated procedure."

   Coast Guard crews intend to dismantle and remove the foghorn when they get around to it, he added.

   It's sort of ironic, isn't it?" Partridge Island historian Harold Wright said in reaction, "that they're keeping other fog alarms going, but they're closing this one down...

   "This was the first foghorn [site] in the world."

   Partridge Island has been the fog alarm station for foggy Saint John since the 1700s, when a cannon was stationed there to be fired when the harbour disappeared in the pea-soup weather for which the city has always been known.

   This was replaced on the island in 1832 by a huge tower containing a 500-kilogram bell.

   When Robert Foulis first thought of constructing a giant steam whistle to signal the island's position to ships, in 1852, it took him six years to convince the city Light House Commission to build it, Mr. Wright said.

   But as soon as the foghorn was completed and first powered up with Albert County coal, in 1859, his idea suddenly took off.

   "His invention was adapted for use all over the world," said George McBeath, a retired UNB history professor, former curator of the New Brunswick Museum and a former provincial deputy minister of historical resources.

   "They felt it was the best device for warning ships in foggy weather."

   Even though his Partridge Island foghorn was at first the only one in the world, Mr. Foulis fore sight to include machinery in his design that timed the facilities pattern of whistle bursts to make Partridge Island unique from all future facilities.

   This way, a skipper might be blinded by fog, but he would still know which foghorn he was listening to.

   What Mr. Foulis didn't foresee was that in the 1990s, ships crew members would simply stop listening. This is what finally rendered the foghorn "very obsolete," Mr. Hope said.

   "Most of the vessels today have enclosed superstructures and engines running. In the days of sail power, it wasn't hard for mariners to hear a fog signal. But nowadays, you literally have to shut down your engine and stop and listen for it."

   As a result, the Coast Guard didn't receive one objection from the marine community to removing the foghorn when it advertised its proposal three months ago, he said. In contrast, the agency over the years has received many complaints from West Enders who say the foghorn keeps them awake at night.

   The Coast Guard has placed a number of electronic navigational aids in Saint John Harbour "to keep up with the technology that people are using," including a buoy that automatically identifies the harbour mouth on the radar screens of all passing vessels, he said.

   "So even without the horn, they can identify Saint John Harbour."

   But all of these electronic aids become useless when a vessel's electrical system fails, said Mr. Moyer, who said he has many times been guided home by the Partridge Island horn.

   "Ever so often, electricity can fail you, with your wires corroding. That's what you get when you have copper around salt. Electronic systems are state-of-the-art, but by the same token, they are not infallible . . You can have a fuse go on you. And then a compass just isn't enough - especially in navigating the tricky waters of the Saint John Harbour. There are currents that are very strong, and they make it one of the worst to places around to navigate."

   Doug Hickman, commodore of the Saint John Power Boat club, was in disbelief at the news yesterday.

   "We may as well take all the road signs down pointing to Saint John," he said.

   Not all of U.S. tourists who come up the Atlantic coast in the summer bring $3,000 or $4,000 radar sets in their boats, he said.

   "The Cruising Club of America's coming here next year. There will be 75 boats out there, wandering around, trying to find Saint John in the fog."

Click here for an update to the foghorn story.