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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
(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
steam-operated fog alarm, on Partridge Island. No horn bellowed
the mist yesterday for possibly the first time in 139 years.
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.
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.
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
crews intend to dismantle and remove the foghorn when they get around to it, he
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
"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.
replaced on the island in 1832 by a huge tower containing a 500-kilogram
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.
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."
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
This way, a
skipper might be blinded by fog, but he would still know which foghorn he was
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.
"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.
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.
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
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."
commodore of the Saint John Power Boat club, was in disbelief at the news
"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.
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.
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