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The magical foghorn

The lake-facing section of the lighthouse at the end of the south side of the Duluth Ship Canal, showing the two horns of the foghorn still in place. (Duluth News Tribune file photo from 2006)

The foghorn at the South Breakwater Light station, on the ship canal, was quite a presence in Duluth when I was a very little girl. My earliest memory of it, however, was not until just before I started school, when we moved to the West End. There, the sound got my attention.

We lived on the corner of 26th Avenue West and Second Street. Coming from an apartment, the house seemed many-roomed and huge. My next-younger sister and I slept in our fun, exciting bunk beds (we LeGarde kids were always very excited about things) in the room that had been either a nursery or dressing room adjoining the larger bedroom where the younger children slept in a toddler bed and a crib (also exciting because of the caged-effect play place underneath). Our room was small, but large enough for bunk beds and a low-slung mirrored vanity that served as our dresser. (Again, exciting! What a great place to watch ourselves dance like Annette Funicello!) A window overlooking the front yard and Second Street was open about 6-8 inches on nice nights.

On a foggy morning we woke to it: a deep, muted BEEEEEE-oh coming from somewhere in the whiteness outside. Safe on the second floor and with our mother downstairs, the sound didn’t frightened us. It was, like so many things in those days, intriguingly exciting. We leaned our chins on the window sill and stuck our faces as far out of that small space of open window as we could, but there was nothing outside but thick white fog. Again, BEEEEEE-oh. We went downstairs to find our mother and ask her. We were sure that she knew everything in the world and what was the source of that deep, mysterious sound.

She explained that downtown, by the Aerial Bridge, there was a man at the lighthouse who guided ships and kept them safe at night with a large light and during fog with … the foghorn. I pictured a man in a nautical uniform cranking a siren attached to a large, shiny brass horn. It sounded like responsible and rewarding work. And fun and exciting, too, the kind of thing the LeGarde kids might like to do someday when we became grownups.

We started making plans and practicing, but got distracted by our cousins moving back to Onigamiising from California, and then the fall Sears catalog coming out, and the tray of costume jewelry that the Crawfords put in the window of their corner store on 25th and Second. (One evening Mrs. Crawford treated us to peach ice cream and let me try on the ring with the purple stone.) We grew, our family grew and in the backdrop of Onigamiising lives, that BEEEEE-oh sounded from time to time, guiding and protecting the ships as they approached the bridge and the harbor.

The foghorn was replaced by a whistle in 1968, the year I graduated from Denfeld. The horn returned in June 1995 due to the the efforts of TOOT (ReTurn Our Old Tone), a citizens’ organization. It was not beloved by all, however, as it was very loud for people on the hillside. It sounded its BEEEEEE-oh until 2006 when the electrical wiring failed and TOOT, the city and the Coast Guard could not agree on who would maintain it. Today the whistle still blows sometimes but most boats, except for the smallest, have technologies that have replaced the role of the foghorn.

I hear the whistle once in awhile. Every time I think of the old foghorn and the magic days of the West End in the 1950s. And I remember one more magical foghorn story, this one from not long before it sounded its last BEEEEEE-oh. I was visiting at my daughter’s apartment in the East Hillside, on Ninth Avenue and Sixth Street, on a foggy afternoon. My grandson Max, who was two, was playing near the front window when the foghorn sounded its deep mysterious groan. He ran to the window and looked down the street.

“Dinosaurs!” he whispered excitedly, watching for the creatures to emerge, perhaps a brontosaurus with a long graceful neck and a T-Rex with a switching tail, from the thickness of the magical white fog.

Linda Legarde Grover

Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

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