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The Foghorn (TOOT)

Duluth's historic diaphone foghorn, unused for more than a year, was dismantled between September 2006 and July 2007 and its components put in storage by TOOT (reTurn Our Old Tone), the non-profit owner of the horn. TOOT president Eric Ringsred's thoughts on the matter are printed below, along with an article and reader forum comments from the Duluth News Tribune. We'll add more on Duluth's historic horn as time allows. Contact Us to send your thoughts for publication here.



This page: Founder Eric Ringsred's thoughts; Duluth News Tribune article and Forum commentary
TOOT, page 2—More Duluth News Tribune Forum commentary
TOOT, page 3—Duluth News Tribune Forum commentary, conclusion


September 27, 2006 : Duluth Foghorn, R.I.P.
By Eric Ringsred

Yesterday, it took only about six hours to destroy three decades of hard work by countless individuals. TOOT members reluctantly dismantled and removed the Old Diaphone Foghorn from the Duluth Ship Canal.

It was the last such foghorn officially operating in North America. Its powerful, resonant two-toned voice--now lost--was a significant piece of our nation's maritime heritage.

At Loss To Explain

As the Chairman of TOOT (reTurn Our Old Tone, Inc.), the non-profit organization which owns and preserves the foghorn, I've been asked a hundred times, "Why?"

Each time, I find myself at a loss to explain - logically, that is. A rational explanation does not exist for the destruction of an immensely popular, historically important, and economically viable artifact of American culture.

Irrational explanations are plentiful however, where government is involved - in this case the U.S. Coast Guard and the City of Duluth.

A Little Background

The U.S. Coast Guard agreed in the late 1970s to preserve the Duluth foghorn - at the behest of Rep. James Oberstar, who was then the chair of the Coast Guard Subcommittee in Congress.

The Coast Guard has repeatedly proven itself inadequate to the task: untrustworthy, incompetent, and above all disdainful of civilians.

The Coast Guard's pattern of behavior began within weeks, by reneging on the agreement brokered by Oberstar, and has continued through the present.

Originally the Coast Guard agreed to install, operate, and maintain the foghorn. This responsibility was almost immediately shifted to our non-profit group, then later to the City of Duluth.

It required 10 years for TOOT to overcome the numerous roadblocks erected by the Coast Guard, including a lengthy Federal Environmental Review. This Review was conducted not by the Coast Guard, but by TOOT.

When the foghorn equipment was finally re-installed in the lighthouse at the end of the Ship Canal, the Coast Guard almost immediately destroyed our air compressors by inadvertently reversing polarity on the electrical supply. This ran the motors and oil pumps backwards.

The coup de grace occurred early in 2006. The Coast Guard made a unilateral decision to sever all cooperation with TOOT or the City in operating the foghorn. The Coast Guard then proceeded to remove a quarter-mile of heavy electrical cables which supplied the foghorn ... the same ones they had reversed 15 years ago in ruining our air compressor equipment.

The removal of these cables was little more than a senseless act of vandalism perpetrated by the Coast Guard - make that "terrorism" had anyone done it to them, as the Coast Guard is now a part of the Department of Homeland Security. Their alibi that "the cables were malfunctioning" doesn't hold bilge water. No consolation for we taxpayers, who paid $70,000 for the installation of those cables when the ship canal was rebuilt in the 1980s.

"That's Duluth"

This morning, I received a call from a friend about the foghorn. "What the heck are they trying to do?" he asked in exasperation. "We're in Duluth - what do you expect?" I said, while in the background his wife could be heard answering the same question simultaneously, "That's Duluth". Sad and true.

The City of Duluth, by City Council resolution, requested the return of the old foghorn in 1972, and again in the late 1970s.

TOOT was organized to implement the Council's request - because frankly, the City was doing nothing about it.

The City of Duluth in 1990, after 15 years of hard work by many citizens, was presented with a set of diaphone foghorns which were installed, modernized, interfaced with Coast Guard equipment, and fully operational. You might say "on a silver platter, tied with ribbons". No work or cost to the City, except for a second air compressor at a price of several thousand dollars.

This equipment was provided virtually gratis to the City for the next 15 years ... and was treated by them accordingly - as worthless.

No efforts to promote the foghorn, nor capitalize on its historical and cultural importance, nor to encourage its supporters - quite the opposite in fact.

We (TOOT), were treated as more of a noise nuisance by both the City and local news media. In fact, opinion polls conducted over the years have consistently found that over 90% of Duluthians strongly support the foghorn.

Despite this, City government has consistently and repeatedly curtailed operation of the foghorn, this year finally dropping it altogether.

Their excuses of expense and "liability" are weaker than the new "peanut whistle" - which replaced the diaphone foghorn at the end of Duluth's Ship Canal.

The City, for example, spends millions on the Aerial Lift Bridge, including many thousands last summer to promote its "birthday".

As to "liability", the perennial government excuse for anything it doesn't feel like doing, the Aerial Bridge is not only a traffic liability (how about a heart attack or accident on Park Point while the Bridge is up?) and a navigational liability (as opposed to a simple canal like the Superior Entry), but also a proven danger to human life and health ( I have personally taken care of one fatality in the Emergency Room of a person who dropped off the bridge, as well as the person they landed on; and I know of others.)

Yet the bridge is celebrated, the foghorn terminated.

So in the end, it came down to the Coast Guard, the City of Duluth, and a handful of people who disliked the foghorn, to take it away from the majority of people who not only liked the foghorn - but who loved the foghorn. This love for the foghorn was felt by residents and visitors alike. It was the only one of its kind still operating in North America, and now it, too, has been silenced. The port of Duluth will never be the same.


Foghorn is gone, probably for good
HISTORY: Electrical problems shut it down, and liability issues prevent operation by the city.
By Peter Passi, News Tribune Staff Writer. Photo by Bob King/News Tribune
Source: Duluth News Tribune, Sept. 27, 2006

TOOT founder Eric Ringsred with dismantled foghorn parts. In case you haven't noticed the absence of a familiar sound on Duluth's waterfront, the port's old diaphone foghorn has not issued a single bellow all season.

And on Tuesday, members of TOOT, the nonprofit group that owns the horn, began dismantling the massive brass, steel and iron beast.

Eric Ringsred, one of TOOT's founders, blames the city and the U.S. Coast Guard for the foghorn's demise.

"We're removing it because of a total lack of commitment," he said. "Partnering with the Coast Guard and the city was a bad idea to start with."

The horn was rendered inoperable when three-phase electrical wiring to the end of the Duluth Entry's south pier failed late last year.

Chief Mark Brookmole, the officer in charge of the Coast Guard's Aids to Navigation team in Duluth, said federal equipment on the pier functions fine with single-phase power, and he couldn't justify the expenditure of tax money to restore three-phase electricity to the structure.

The Coast Guard has replaced the foghorn with a much smaller, higher-pitched horn some traditionalists have derided as a "peanut horn."

Brookmole said he notified city officials of the situation and gave Duluth the option of restoring three-phase power to the pier at its own cost.

Dick Larson, Duluth's director of public works, said repowering the pier probably would cost about $15,000.

But he said the Coast Guard also told the city that if it wanted to continue to operate the old diaphone foghorn as an aid to navigation, it should assume responsibility for all round-the-clock foghorn operations. Along with shouldering that responsibility, the city also learned it would be required to assume all liability for maritime accidents related to the foghorn's operation.

"That was something the city was not willing to do," Larson said. "We were in a tough situation. It was pretty clear the city couldn't take over full responsibility from the Coast Guard."

The Duluth City Council was apprised of the situation late last fall but took no action.

Thom Holden, director of the Lake Superior Maritime Museum, said the sound of the foghorn has been missed.

"It was a really nice auditory reminder of what the waterfront was like in its early days," he said.

Holden mused that perhaps a public campaign could have been mounted to raise money to keep the foghorn operating.

But Larson said that even if a fundraising campaign was successful, it would not resolve the liability issues confronting the city.

Larson said there has been no discernible public outcry over the discontinued operation of the foghorn.

"Almost a year has gone by without the foghorn, and I haven't heard much," he said.

Back in 1968, Duluth's original foghorn was decommissioned by the Coast Guard. Its replacement, an electric whistle, was not to the tastes of nostalgic residents who formed TOOT -- short for reTurn Our Old Tone -- and raised nearly $100,000 to return an old-style foghorn to the harbor.

With Congressman Jim Oberstar's help, TOOT acquired a foghorn from Kewaunee, Wis., after it was retired from service there in 1981.

The old foghorn wasn't warmly received by everyone in Duluth, however. Some residents complained the diaphone was too loud and disturbed their sleep.

Ron Thompson, an assistant hotel manager at Fitger's Inn, said the foghorn sometimes disturbed resting guests.

"When it went off, you could hear it in here clear as day, even with the windows closed," Thompson said.

In response to complaints, the city restricted the diaphone's hours of operation to between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m.

"We kept compromising on the hours of operation, and in the end it was compromised right out of existence," Ringsred said. "It might have been better if we had been a little more militant."

The future of the disassembled diaphone horn remains uncertain.

"I hope it will go somewhere where it will be heard and appreciated," said Ringsred, adding that he has received inquiries from ports as near as Two Harbors, and from as far away as San Francisco.

Tom Cox, a TOOT member and lifelong Duluthian, said Duluth's failure to preserve the foghorn is "a big mistake."

"If you grew up here, you never gave the sound of the foghorn another thought," he said. "It just blended in so well with the seagulls, the oreboats and the bridge horn. You only really missed it after it was gone."


Commentary on the above ...
From the Duluth News-Tribune's moderated Forum

Another Prime example of Duluth loosing what it is all about. Can anyone ever step to the plate? Figure out a solution to keep it? What a loss for Duluth, the heritage of Duluth, but then again this city has a way of shooting it-self in the foot time and time again, that is why our economy is stuck in 1970.

Posted by: 9/27/2006 7:59 AM


This is why I love Duluth, I love hearing the fog horn. It was here long before the complainers - part of the charm of Duluth is it's harbor! So much for tradition!!!!! What next close down the harbor? This is the one thing my daughter misses is the fog horn. She has it on tape, at least she can still hear it in Michigan.

Posted by: szb 9/27/2006 8:01 AM


My wife and I have commented to each other all summer about how much we noticed the absence of the old traditional sounding fog horn. We joked and laughed about how whimpy the whistle sounds and how it takes away from the whole Duluth and Canal Park experience. While we certainly feel for the people who lived near the horn and were disturbed by its volume, we noticeably missed the old horns echos through the neighborhood on foggy and hazy days. Sadly with the liability issue mentioned in the article we will probably have to settle for the whimpy poor excuse for a whistle they have put in its place.

Posted by: Dan 9/27/2006 8:10 AM


I grew up with that foghorn in the 40's and 50's It was part of what Duluth was. Many things change however some things should never change.

Posted by: Gary 9/27/2006 8:39 AM


I visit the Duluth area about once a year. When I read about the piece of history and a conversation icon being removed I though to myself why? I am not attaching Mr Thompson, but his comment, "...the foghorn sometimes disturbed resting guests."...Ask them what they remember about Duluth, Minnesota and I bet the fog horn comes up. This is what places are made from - it's like a personal signature...this one is lost - hopefully not for long though.

Posted by: Newark, Ohio 9/27/2006 8:43 AM


The Foghorn (TOOT), continued: Much, much more commentary »

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