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Foghorns Of Vancouver Awaken Childhood Memories

01/31/2014 05:35 EST | Updated 04/02/2014 05:59 EDT
Darryl Dyck/CP

There are sounds that can transport you to a different time. The squeaky complaint of a laundry line being reeled in. The clink of bottles recalling a milkman's delivery on the doorstep.

The baying tones of a foghorn reminding you of a city vanished ... in more ways than one.

Vancouver has become an occupied city. To hell with Carl Sandburg. To hell with fog arriving on "little cat feet."

For weeks now, unseasonable fog has shrouded the city in vapour. Unlike the fog in Sandburg's beloved poem, this fog shows no sign of moving on. Less like Sandburg's little cat and more like a rogue cougar, this fog is remaining settled on its haunches.

It wreaks its usual havoc, fog does. Commutes are complicated; flights are delayed; things get wet.

But many of us are delighted, for with the fog, returned the foghorn. The foghorn! The low, baying sound of a Vancouver from an earlier time is back. And with it, so many of our childhood memories.

As a young girl growing up within sight of the Lion's Gate Bridge, the foghorn was a frequent presence in my life. I used to lie in bed trying to assign words to the sound the foghorn made. Many years later, I discovered that the foghorn did, indeed, have a story to tell.

A young woman dies shortly after childbirth leaving her husband with a baby daughter. The year is 1818: Such things were hideously common then. The young Scottish widower decides to start over in a new place. He chooses Ohio. He sets sail from Glasgow with his baby daughter. His name is Robert Foulis. He is 22.

The Atlantic crossing is interrupted by a storm. The boat puts in at Halifax. That a 22 year-old widower traveling with a baby decides to go no further is completely understandable. The world will be a better place as a result of his decision to set up home in a port city will be understandable in the decades to come.

Back then, the expression "Go with God" wasn't uttered lightly. Travel of any sort was risky and passage by boat, infamously so. Lighthouses with parabolic light reflectors had been around since the early 1800s. arious devices that warned of submerged hazards were rigged up according to local initiative, but often these were no more than bells or whistles mounted on buoys. Death at sea was an inherent risk for all who set sail. That Foulis decided to forsake plans for Ohio and set up home in Nova Scotia speaks of how difficult his Atlantic passage must have been.

Robert Foulis was an especially resourceful and intelligent man. Back in Scotland, he had dual ambitions: to become a surgeon; to study engineering. Engineering would win out. While in Halifax, he kept body and soul together by teaching art and through commissioned portraiture. Eventually, he remarried and had two more children. The family relocated to New Brunswick where Foulis returned to engineering, while also lecturing on a wide variety of topics.

While walking home one foggy evening, he could hear his daughter playing the piano. He noticed how the low notes carried the distance to him through the fog.

Since the 1700s, Saint John harbour had what was called a cannon alarm. In the early 1800s, the city had installed at bell tower to warn of the shoals.

Foulis had become fascinated by fog and the way that sound traveled. He was convinced that a better maritime warning system was possible. He undertook to invent a steam-operated horn that emitted long, low notes that carried greater distances than the high-pitched bell tones of the current warning system. He also devised a coded system so that various horn installations could be distinguished from one another.

The wheels of government move slowly, but finally, in 1859, Foulis's foghorn was installed on Partridge Island in Saint John harbour. It was the first foghorn in the world. It would remain in place, effective and operational, until the Coast Guard shut it off in 1998.

The world had changed. Emerging technology was making foghorns redundant; even recreational boats had sophisticated radar systems. Enclosed superstructures on ships made it impossible to even hear a foghorn.

In its time, the foghorn averted countless deaths. Robert Foulis's invention, however, had become obsolete.

Blog continues after slideshow:

Vancouver Fog Photos (Oct. 25, 2013)

And yet.

And yet.

These past few weeks, the mournful baying of a foghorn has been haunting the city. Long-time residents remark on it to one another:

"Did you hear ...?"

"Isn't it lovely ...?"

"... can't remember the last time I heard one ..."

A mnemonic device if there ever was one, the foghorn awakens memories from an earlier time. The keening dipthong, somehow comforting, recalling steaming bowls of porridge before an unescorted walk to school.

The days when the Lion's Gate was a toll bridge.

The days when the Nine O'clock Gun could be heard all over the city.

It seems we love the foghorn. The fog may be a presence to be managed but the foghorn conveys a special sense of community. And not just any community, but of a maritime community.

But where was it coming from?

I made inquiries. None of the authorities I spoke with seemed to know anything about it. Port Metro Vancouver said they'd fielded dozens of inquiries but that there was no foghorn operational within the port.

It took awhile before I found the answer. The mournful tones slicing through the Vancouver fog aren't land-based foghorns but those of foghorns installed on ships. There are a set of rules governing their use, but captains can use them at their discretion.

Personally, I give them licence to use them liberally.

Robert Foulis did not get properly recognized nor rewarded for his selfless invention. An American applied for the patent for his foghorn and Foulis died penniless.

When I learned the story of Robert Foulis's noble invention, I suddenly heard the word the foghorn had been trying to tell me all those years ago: Fouuuuuu ... Lisssssss.