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Jim Heffernan column: To TOOT or not to TOOT was the question

The number of Duluthians who recall hearing the old foghorn is getting smaller and smaller with each passing year.

Jim Heffernan
The lake-facing section of the lighthouse at the end of the south side of the Duluth Ship Canal, in 2006, showing the two horns of the old foghorn still in place.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune
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An item in this newspaper’s Bygones column the other day brought back a couple of memories: Once upon a time Duluth harbor had a loud foghorn that could be heard far and wide before it died, and its attempted return 40 years ago got me on national television.

Bygones is researched and written by David Ouse, retired reference librarian from the Duluth Public Library. He can be contacted at djouse49@gmail.com.

Fond memories indeed.

Modern technology sometime after mid-20th century obviated the need for a foghorn at all. Today’s maritime communications are such that ships enveloped by fog off our shores can find their way into port without having an ancient mariner in a Southwester rain hat standing at the bow, his hand capping his ear, an albatross overhead, listening for our foghorn.

It’s been a long time but I will try to convey as best I can in print what the foghorn sounded like. It had two levels that went together, booming thusly: OOOOOM-pah … OOOOOM-pah. The OOOOOM rendered a higher tone, the pah a little lower. Got that? It resounded throughout the inner city and beyond whenever the fog rolled in “on little cat feet,” as the poet put it

The number of Duluthians who recall hearing the old foghorn is getting smaller and smaller with each passing year. Of course. Read the obits.

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But Eric Ringsred remembers it, and did, back in 1982 when he tried valiantly to bring the foghorn back for, oh, I don’t know, for auld lang syne, I suppose. Ringsred, a physician and civic activist who usually advocates saving historic buildings, must have liked the sound of the foghorn, as did tens of thousands of Duluthians within earshot. Unfortunately a good number of folks within earshot did not care for it at all. It disturbed their sleep, many claimed.

Growing up in what was once known as Duluth’s West End neighborhood , I could hear it when the wind was right. I never questioned it; it was simply part of Duluth. When it disappeared I didn’t really notice.

Man posing with two foghorn diaphones
Eric Ringsred talks in 2006 about his past efforts to work with the U.S. Coast Guard to keep the foghorn in Duluth. At bottom are the two diaphones that were used to create the low, loud and once familiar sound. They were removed from the lighthouse at the end of the South Pier in September 2006.
Bob King / File / Duluth News Tribune

Ringsred did, and decided to bring it back. He initiated a campaign to refurbish the old “diaphone” foghorn (its technical description) and formed an organization he called “reTurn Our Old Tone” going by the acronym TOOT. Not bad. And a summer Fog Festival was organized to help raise funds for restoring the old foghorn and celebrate its return.

As with some other of Ringsred’s projects, it created some amount of controversy pitting those for bringing it back against those who never wanted to hear the old TOOT again. Like every other controversy, it played itself out, and eventually died. The result was no diaphone foghorn returning to the waterfront. End of story? Not quite.

Of course during the height of the TOOT campaign, it made the TV and print news around here ballyhooing the Fog Festival, and somehow WGN television in Chicago got word of it. One of the most prominent broadcasters in the country, WGN could send reporters and photographers considerable distances in the Midwest for stories. As a result, they sent a team to Duluth to find out about the Fog Festival.

The first place the WGN reporter and photographer stopped to seek help in getting started was this newspaper. They first encountered a summer intern in the newsroom who didn’t feel qualified to discuss the foghorn issue and he brought the television news team to me.

Would I, they asked, be willing to let them film an interview with me about the Fog Festival?

Well, I’m not too hot at TV reporting, but I agreed. Besides, I figured, it would only be shown in Chicagoland.

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So I sat down behind an empty newsroom desk as they placed their equipment opposite me and I told them all about our Fog Festival. It took maybe 15 minutes total from setup to “thanks” and “goodbye.”

I gave it no more thought, but the next weekend, when we were out and about on Saturday evening, people I knew came up to me and said they’d seen me earlier on the CBS Evening News. That’s the national CBS Evening News helmed in those days by legendary Walter Cronkite, although my appearance was on a Saturday when somebody else was anchoring.

CBS Evening News! My casual remarks on the Fog Festival had gone national. In the ensuing days I began hearing from people in other parts of the country with whom I was acquainted. Unfortunately, I missed it.

And Hollywood never called.

MORE BY JIM HEFFERNAN
Today’s volleyball courts are the site of what was once a small summertime amusement park with many of the typical rides.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist.

Related Topics: DULUTHSHIPPINGLAKE SUPERIOR
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by email at jimheffernan@jimheffernan.org.
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