Written by Jim Heffernan for the Duluth News Tribune/July 23, 2022
Source Flickr: Photographer is Apollo Antonin (8-6-21)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and continues as a columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and maintains a blog at www.jimheffernan.org.