Saint John, New Brunswick

This article was taken from the Times Globe, Friday, May 15/98

Lots of fog but no horn!

An essayist mourns the loss of the sounds of yesteryear - and says
we should give Ottawa an earful to save the Partridge Island foghorn.

Contributed by

   Anger welled up inside me as I listened incredulously to the voice on the radio. Surely I was misunderstanding. No, it was for real! The foghorn on Partridge Island had been turned off. And, to add insult to injury, the Coast Guard was going to dismantle it just as soon as they found time. It sounded as if that might happen any day.

   I reacted immediately. A call was made to office of Elsie Wayne, MP. A letter of protest was written to the Hon. David Anderson, Minister, Department of Fisheries and Oceans with a copy to the newly-minted Premier, Camille Thériault. As the foghorn is a tourist attraction, that Department was also contacted.

   It was a sneak attack. We had been given no warning. The government obviously worked quickly before we had a chance to raise any objections. They have effectively silenced one of the remaining cherished sounds of my youth.

   In 1937 my family moved to York Point (9 North Street) beside the harbour. We seemed to have more fog then so the foghorn soon changed from a chilly sound to a familiar friend. Saint John was a busy harbour and the Canadian winter port. It remained that way until the federal government poured millions into the St. Lawrence Seaway, which opened 1959. Now, our tax dollars are spent to keep it open in the winter while our men have go elsewhere to find work. I suppose next they'll want to take away Partridge Island. Then again, maybe not. They'd think it would leave a hole and they wouldn't know how to fill it.

   In my youth, there were constant sounds on the waters. We'd have 25 to 30 ships tied up at any one time. When they wanted to leave, they'd blow a coded series of whistles. The pilot boats would answer with their own codes and go and take the ships out. The Princess Helene or the Digby Boat, as it was called, also had a distinctive blast on her daily arrivals and departures.

   Not so many years ago, the trains rumbled through Saint John at all hours of the day and night. There were lots of them. In addition to the freight trains, there used to be daily and sometimes twice daily passenger trains going and coming from Boston, Fredericton, Montreal, and Halifax. We could hear the train whistles from far away as the sound travelled for miles, especially at night. In the early forties, troop trains started arriving in Saint John. They rattled through the city continuously. There was standing room only in that lovely marble train station that the federal government tore down in 1973.

   The sound of train whistles evokes many feelings - some of loneliness, some of adventures. I guess it all depended on your mood. I'm glad that train whistles are still a sound we can hear today. No thanks to Ottawa, though. They couldn't make the trains show a profit.

   Another sound that has gone forever is the clang of the street car. There was a little bell with the top on the floor which the operator would press with his foot. The clanging of this bell served as a horn to warn people to get out of the way. There were no traffic lights. Traffic was directed by a policeman who used a whistle in conjunction with hand signals. Lots of older Saint John residents may remember Andy Duffy standing at the Head of King, and Alan McGinnis at Haymarket Square, directing traffic with their white gloves and whistles.

   The automobiles then had klaxon horns. All the bicycles had bells because they were driven on the street with all the other vehicles. Today the bicycles are usually driven on the sidewalks where they terrorize, and sometimes injure, the pedestrians. Perhaps the new Police Chief, Butch Cogswell, will see fit to enforce the bicycle by-law. His predecessor couldn't be bothered to issue the required bicycle licences or to get rid of sidewalk litter - bicycles, skateboards, sandwich boards, and just plain garbage.

   Police and ambulance sirens were very distinctive. The Fire Department had bells on their fire engines. When there was a fire, people went to the nearest box on their street and pulled down the switch on the box. It would ring at the fire station and then the horn at the fire station would blast the distinctive number. for that particular box. The fire engine would race to the box, ringing a bell. From the box they would see or be directed to where the fire was. In case of accidents, people were encouraged to use the same fire alarm system. Few people had telephones so that was how emergency calls were handled.

   I also remember the factory whistles. They usually blew at noon for lunch and at five pm for the end of the working day. I remember the ones from the sugar refinery, the veneer plant, and the box mill. When the girls left the Estabrooks tea plant, there was a different kind of whistle. That was me!

   Every day at 4:50 in the afternoon I remember seeing the horses being driven from the coal wagons for the day. The men would leave the wagons down on Smythe Street at R.P. & .W. F. Starr. They'd walk behind the horses holding the reins and the bells would jingle merrily. They were being taken to George Street to the horse barns where they were housed for the night.

   On Sunday, church bells and chimes rang out all over town. They were usually rung by someone pulling a rope in the belfry. I wonder if any of the churches still use them. I suspect that many, if not all of them, are now done electronically.

   Very few people had door bells in those days. There were also few mail boxes. The postman would blow his whistle if he had mail for you. Everyone would come trooping out to see who had written. Sometimes, if he was in a hurry, he'd blow the whistle and leave the mail on the stairs. Mail was delivered twice a day and on Saturday. Nearly every store had a bell over the inside door. When you entered, it would ring. The one I remember best was over Mr. Corbett's candy store door on Rockland Road.

   Technology has eliminated most of the whistles and bells I have mentioned but not the memories. Progress marches on and there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it is essential. But we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water, and that's what I think has happened with the foghorn.

   We're proud of that foghorn and rightfully boast about it. It was invented here. It's our baby. It, and the code that Robert Foulis developed for it, was the greatest saver of seamen's lives and ships until the invention of radar.

   We have radar and sonar and, yes, the Partridge Island foghorn is obsolete. But, it's a part of our heritage. It's the first such foghorn in the world. Therefore, it has worldwide significance. We have our heritage buildings which are protected by the federal government. (How did that ever happen?) Now let us have at least one heritage sound. The tourists love it; it's authentic. The citizens love it.

   Bring back our foghorn. It's simply outrageous that it was taken from us. Don't let them dismantle it. After our train station was torn down, we all said that we should have stopped it. Now is the time to stop the dismantling of the foghorn - before it is too late.

   Write, write, write. Or else we will have nothing left.

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