Unknown Stories of WNY: South Buffalo Foghorn

5:22 PM, Jul 23, 2013   |    comments
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  • Foghorn appears from roof of mechanical building as dark object to the left of the South Buffalo Lighthouse
  • Inside the mechanical room, in which instruments which powered the foghorn remain
  • Foghorn measures 11' across. "It looks like something the Germans might have placed on the cliffs of Normandy," remarked one observer.
  • From shore, foghorn is barely visible to the left of South Buffalo Lighthouse

BUFFFALO, NY - You can actually see it from Fuhrman Boulevard...if someone points it out to you.

Next to the South Buffalo Lighthouse stands a low lying, rust colored relic the presence of which, according to Mike Vogel of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association, is likely not known to most.

"Probably not," he said, regarding that which this day is only accessible by watercraft.

Moreover, it is only when you begin to approach it, that you begin to realize just how big it is.

You might well be surprised to know that that which appear as a spec to the naked eye from shore is actually eleven feet across.

What it is...is a foghorn, which hasn't been heard in nearly 50 years. Although it's more properly called a diaphone.

Powered by compressed air it could emit extremely powerful low-frequency notes of up to 120 decibels.

On hulking doors leading to the bowels of a crumbling building, which houses its apparatus, faded signs remain, warning that if you stood close enough, it was loud enough to hurt you.

The diaphone was so powerful that it was purposely pointed away from shore, so that it could serve its purpose of warning passing ships of the presence of the break wall upon which it sits, but not roust the residents of Buffalo and beyond from their beds,... although, it most surely did.

"Oh, you could hear it all right," said Vogel, whose group was able to purchase both the diaphone and the accompanying lighthouse several years ago as surplus property."There was another foghorn at the north entrance but generally, what you heard was this one because it was much more powerful. Fog does strange things to sound; it deflects it in a lot of different directions, so you could hear it from a lot of different places."

The diaphone horn was based directly on the organ stop of the same name invented by Robert Hope-Jones, creator of another Western New York claim to fame, the Wurlitzer organ.

And it turns out this particular diaphone had a distinction beyond Buffalo, as it would serve as a model for others in the Great Lakes due to a patented design involving a secondary compressed air supply to the piston.

This allowed it to be powered on both forward and reverse strokes and create an even more powerful, two toned sound.

"The two different resonator trumpets provided the two different tones," noted Vogel.

This diaphone was placed here in 1934 as a replacement for an earlier foghorn erected 30 years before, when Buffalo reigned supreme as an inland port.

Both it and the lighthouse were manned by a three man, rotating crew during the shipping season.

However, their jobs were eliminated in 1962, when both the horn and lighthouse were automated.

Not too many years later both the horn and the lighthouse respectively had outlived their purpose.

"Technology overtook them, like it has much of everything else in the lighthouse service. Eventually, with satellite navigation systems, ships could pinpoint their location without the use of a foghorn.

In the ensuing decades, the diaphone has become a rusting roost for passing gulls and a habitat for spiders that lay in wait for a passing meal.

Its once mighty sound silenced... but perhaps not forever.

"Maybe not," said Vogel, who notes the Buffalo Lighthouse Association is continuing to raise funds for the planned restoration of first the lighthouse, and then perhaps, the diaphone itself

"If we can at some time in the future restore the machinery, we could use it occasionally to bring back the memories of what a fog signal was. We're all about preserving maritime heritage and that's a sound cue from our American past. That would be a lot of fun, although I wouldn't want to be standing on this side of it when it went off," he laughed.

Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bob Mancuso. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2.

Do you have an idea for an Unknown Story of Western New York? Email Dave McKinley at: Dave.McKinley@wgrz.com


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