October 10, 2018 | by: billgulliver

The Foghorn Legacy…

There are many things the beautiful city of Saint John has to offer its residents and visitors alike, among them are two things we know we can count on: The Reversing Falls and a thick pervasive blanket of fog that at times, envelops the city. We see the “Falls” – and while we can see the fog it is a foghorn that we are able to hear. The foghorn is a long standing symbol of the city.


(Watercolour of the first steam-powered foghorn on Partridge Island)

What we take for granted poses a significant threat to ships, fishing boats and all other water craft trying to find Saint John in the fog. Modern technology, electronic buoys and satellite systems rendered the foghorn obsolete. A foghorn is a signal that sends sound to warn vehicles of navigational hazards like rocky coastlines, or boats of the presence of other vessels, in foggy conditions. The term is most often used in relation to marine transport. When visual navigation aids such as lighthouses are obscured, foghorns provide an audible warning of rock outcrops, shoals, headlands, or other dangers to shipping. A compass just isn’t enough especially in navigating the waters of the Saint John Harbour. Fog or no fog there are currents that are very strong, and they make it one of the worst to places around to navigate.

Yet few know the history of the foghorn as it relates to Saint John.

One foggy night in Saint John, in 1853 an engineer by the name of Robert Foulis made a discovery that would make history.

Robert Foulis

Foulis was born in Scotland in 1796 and emigrated to Saint John in 1818 following the death of his wife. On his way home that foggy night, Foulis could hear his daughter playing the piano. As the notes made their way through the dense fog he noticed the he could hear the lowest notes most clearly. As an engineer Foulis realized the significance of science. The lower a sound is the farther that sound can be heard to travel. Foulis’ first fog-alarm not only blasted out loud low tones, he also used automation to set the fog-alarm up to play different coded cadences so that sailors could determine which location they were nearing.

Foulis went about his business and came up with an idea that would revolutionize the shipping industry. He invented the first steam-powered in foghorns in 1853. Foghorns have been sounding off since 1859 Foulis’s coal generated steam- powered foghorn began operations on Partridge Island. In one form or another, the Partridge Island foghorn  continued to sound out a mournful moan to wayward mariners for 139 years, until it was finally switched off on May 4th, 1998 creating a fury in the city and the eerie sounds of silence for mariners and their vessels.

In a cruel twist of fate, Foulis was never able to secure the patent for the steam-powered foghorn. Embattled in a dispute over rights with the Province of New Brunswick and a string of failed business ventures, Foulis died in poverty in 1866.