Duluth’s Foghorn Saga

The workings of Duluth’s foghorn inside the South Breakwater Light Station. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Duluthians have either loved or hated the fog signal since it was first used in 1885. In 1915 the steam-powered twin whistles installed in 1901 were replaced by locomotive whistles, which in turn were replaced in 1923 by electrically powered twin Type F diaphone horns whose deep “Bee-Oh” tone could be heard for twenty miles. Almost immediately Duluthians complained. The horn was much too loud and rattled windows; in the hillside neighborhood, the horn disrupted conversation and woke the sleeping.

In 1968 the Coast Guard retired the horn, replacing it with a much quieter single-tone horn. While some Duluthians rejoiced, others dearly missed the old horn’s deep toot and felt the City had lost part of its very identity. They called the new signal a “peanut whistle.”

Those folks included John Ringsred and his son Eric. The Ringsreds started a non-profit organization called TOOT (ReTurn Our Old Tone) and worked for years to bring the old signal back. They purchased another antique diaphone, renovated it, and installed it in the south breakwater light. With $5,000 paid annually from the City, TOOT maintained the horn. The Coast Guard granted the City an operating permit, which TOOT leased from the City. The aerial bridge operators prepared the horn each spring, but the Coast Guard operated it.

TOOT fired up the signal for the first time in over twenty years in June 1995. The old window-rattling horn was back—to the dismay of many hillsiders. That night (and early morning) Duluthians barraged Mayor Gary Doty with calls to his home; he ordered it shut down for the night.

For the next few years, Duluthians remained relatively silent on the issue. Then in late 2002 the City Council, besieged by letters both for and against the horn, attempted to come up with a compromise on its operational hours. The first idea was to limit the horn’s use to between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., but Doty vetoed the resolution; while he too enjoyed the horn, he wanted to respect those whose lives it disrupted.

But in the spring of 2003, as bridge operators prepared the horn for the new shipping season, TOOT was nowhere to be found. Their lease to operate the foghorn had expired. Eric Ringsred then sent the City a letter stating the group planned to dismantle the horn because of the operating hours dispute—in the meantime, he disabled the horn. This put the City in violation of its Coast Guard permit to operate the horn. Eventually a compromise was struck, restricting the horn’s use to between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. and only when conditions merited its use; the Coast Guard would otherwise use its smaller whistle.

The issue didn’t go away for long. In April 2005 Dr. Ringsred was angry again. The City, he claimed, had failed to pay TOOT its annual $5,000 for “renting” the horn. Mayor Herb Bergson’s administration retorted that TOOT had not sent the City a bill; in fact, the City had received no communication from the group for two years. Meanwhile, the City took over basic maintenance. Bridge supervisor Steve Douville explained that the City had spent $500 in parts that very April to prepare the horn for another season. Without any help from TOOT, the horn remained in operation.

Later that fall the Coast Guard asked the City to stop using the old horn: it interfered with fog detection equipment and using both the old horn and the Coast Guard’s whistle confused mariners. The City hoped to keep the old horn working and blast it once a day and on special occasions. But the Coast Guard also removed cables carrying the three-phase electricity the horn required for power; all of the pier’s federal equipment functioned with single-phase power.

It would cost $15,000 to restore the cables, and TOOT felt it had already spent enough money. On September 26, 2006, members of TOOT dismantled the horn for the last time. Reactions posted on the Duluth News Tribune’s online message board both praised the move and displayed dismay at the loss of the old tone.

The Coast Guard’s “peanut whistle” still blows in foggy conditions. While most ships have radar and GPS navigation, many smaller craft do not, and to them an audible fog signal could still mean the difference between safety and peril.