Bringing back the sound of San Francisco: the foghorn

San Francisco, bay city of undertow and overcast, is holding a fog-calling contest. The object is to impersonate the groan of those old, two-tone foghorns associated with ocean cruises and Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective stories. First prize for the best vocal rendition is a night for two (earplugs included) in the East Brother Light Station, a Victorian lighthouse that's still operating in San Francisco Bay; second prize is a London Fog raincoat; and third prize is a case of pea soup.

For weeks, the city's baritones and tuba players have been licking their chops for the competition July 29 at San Francisco's annual urban county fair. (Awards will also be given that weekend for the best chopped liver, the best fortune cookie stuffer, the best telephone-answering-machine message, and for the motorist who is the best at finding impossible parking spaces. First prize in the parking contest is a 10-speed Bianchi bicycle, second prize is $50 in dimes and free parking at the fair.)

Judging the fog callers are: Walter Fanning, born in the Yerba Buena Island lighthouse in 1909; Wayne Wheeler, the Coast Guard's Twelfth District assistant in charge of lighthouses and fog signals; Ingram Marshall, a modern music composer whose works include ''Fog Tropes''; and Lee Baby Sims, a disc jockey for sponsoring radio station KFOG-FM.

Imitating those romantic old steam-powered fog signals is no easy feat; there are few around left to mimic. In the 1930s, San Francisco Bay was a cacophony of 51 diaphones, whistles, bells, and sirens, warning mariners of shoals and shallows. According to Mr. Wheeler, the last American two-tone diaphone foghorn in full-time use is in Edgartown, on Martha's Vineyard. (The last single-tone diaphone in use in California hangs from the middle span of the Golden Gate Bridge. At the first sight of haze, it squawks every 40 seconds.)

To capture a little fog lore and publicize the contest, Merle Goldstone, the fair's impish competitions manager, recently borrowed a temperamental tape recorder and set off for East Brother Island to stalk the howl of the nearly extinct two-tone diaphone.

''We're trying to recapture that long-lost original sound of the lighthouse on the Bay,'' said Ms. Goldstone, boarding a Wellcraft skiff in front of a weathered restaurant decorated with splintering blue shutters shaped like anchors. The skiff, which ferries passengers out to East Brother, docks at the Point San Pablo Yacht Club, a dilapidated wharf near the site of what was once the last whaling station in the United States.

''Fog is San Francisco's trademark,'' Goldstone said. ''The contest is a takeoff on the traditional hog calling at county fairs.'' The city of San Francisco lies within the boundaries of California's Fifth Agricultural District , and the state donates $85,000 to each district for an annual fair and exposition. ''Who knows?'' kidded Goldstone, taking a seat in the stern. ''If we come up with some good fog callers, we might challenge London next year.''

An international fog-off? Goldstone's publicity plot was thickening. The sky over San Francisco Bay, however, remained a clear Cambridge blue. No fog, not even a mare's tail in sight. At the helm of the skiff was Mr. Fanning. He was returning to East Brother where his grandfather had been the lighthouse keeper back in 1914, a year when the bay, without bridges, was a network of ferry, schooner, and stern-wheeler traffic.

''Back then, a coal-fired steam engine powered East Brother's two brass whistles, and the lights were fueled by lard and whale oil,'' Fanning said. He veered around a sea lion dozing on a nearby buoy. ''In '36 they switched to electricity, and in '69 the Coast Guard automated East Brother with one of those electronic beeps. A miserable sound.''

Fanning has a salty Down East look, wind-burned complexion and thick white hair. He wore dark-blue work clothes and folded his arms when he talked. His companion that day was Wayne Wheeler, who looked as though he might have been an elder son of Fanning's who had been sent back East to college. He wore penny loafers, a button-down shirt, and regimental striped tie. His landlubber attire, however, was misleading. Mr. Wheeler works for the Coast Guard, and behind his mottled whiskers lurks a garrulous gent who may very well know more about fog-signal history than anyone in America.

As it turns out, lighthouses are as old as the pharaohs, but foghorns are relatively newfangled. The early 18th-century fog signals in Europe, Wheeler said, were not beacons at all, but rockets and cannons. The first fog signal on the West Coast was a cannon at Point Bonita, and Wheeler relishes telling the tale of the retired Army sergeant who manned that gun in 1857. When he signed on , the sergeant apparently had no idea Point Bonita averaged 1,000 hours of fog annually.

After a couple months on fog patrol, the sergeant penned his commanding officer: ''I cannot find any person here to relieve me, not five minutes. I have been up three days and three nights, had only two hours' rest.'' Two years later , the government discovered it was spending $2,000 a year on gunpowder for Point Bonita (the sergeant's annual salary was $600), and so the cannon (and the sergeant) was replaced with a 4,000-pound fog bell.

Fanning nosed the skiff into the East Brother pier. Wheeler leaped from the bobbing boat to an eight-foot vertical ladder. He proudly pointed up to the light. ''We just got an historically correct Fresnel lens to stick up there.''

The East Brother Light Station was constructed in 1873-74. Of the 17 lighthouses built in and around San Francisco Bay, it is the oldest still in operation. When the Coast Guard automated the light and fog signal 14 years ago, it boarded up the old gingerbread lighthouse on the one-acre island. But now the renovated East Brother Light Station has been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places and doubles as a $165-a-night bed and breakfast. It also has a mothballed two-tone diaphone foghorn, which Walter Fanning cranks up on special occasions.

As Fanning fired up the diesels and fiddled with the compressor, Wheeler backed off and plugged his ears. Goldstone moved in closer with her tape recorder. Without warning, the diaphone cut loose with a teeth-rattling howl:


In the 1850s a reporter described a steam-powered foghorn as having a ''screech like an army of panthers, weird and prolonged, gradually lowering in note until after half a minute it becomes the roar of a thousand mad bulls, with intermediate voices suggestive of the wail of a lost soul, the moan of a bottomless pit, and the groan of a disabled elevator.'' My sentiments, exactly.

Fanning emerged from the belly of the foghorn to apologize: ''The north whistle won't come down and play the low note. Just can't get it up to rumble.'' At that point, Goldstone realized her tape had not been rolling during the first performance and she politely pleaded with Fanning for an encore. He returned to the engine room while Wheeler retreated out of range beyond the white picket fence behind the light house. There he continued the history lesson.

Steam-powered whistles, trumpets, and sirens, said Wheeler, replaced the old fog bells (often such bells were rung by hand, tidal power, or a clockwork weights system). However, they all proved to be not only dissonant, but extravagant. ''Steam-powered fog-signal stations,'' Wheeler said, ''burned a ton of coal or a cord of wood every 10 hours they were in operation.'' In 1915, the now-beloved diaphone signal came into use. ''Each horn was custommade, just like a Rolls-Royce,'' said Wheeler. ''It came with only two spare replacements for the brass sleeve which vibrated to produce the note. When those sleeves wore out , you had to get a whole new horn.'' These melodious, throwaway horns were followed by cheaper ''diaphragm'' horns which have the familiar scream of diesel locomotives.

By mid-afternoon, Wheeler had completed his fog-signal history, Fanning had pulled out all the stops on his diaphone, and Goldstone had her precious foghorn tape for the contest. Sometime later, back in her office, she mused about what it had felt like to snare one of the last diaphones in captivity. ''You got to remember that foghorn was meant for a ship way off in the distance,'' she said. ''But since I'm not a ship, I have a whole different perception of the sound. I happen to think it's one of the funniest sounds in the world. My friends and I crack up every time I replay it. Whoever wins the fog-calling contest, I suspect , will need a sense of humor and,'' she added, ''a very deep voice.''

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