The earliest method of a fog signal for the mariner at sea in the United States was cannons. At the time, it was the only method of a loud noise that could be heard for long distances. The first fog cannon was used at Boston Lighthouse, in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, as early as 1719.
The first use of a fog cannon on the West Coast of the United States was at the Point Bonita Light Station at the entrance to California’s San Francisco Bay. The Lighthouse Establishment secured a surplus 24-Pounder from the Benicia Arsenal that was part of a large military reservation located next to Suisun Bay in Benicia, California. The fog cannon officially went into operation at Point Bonita Light Station on August 8, 1856.
The government hired Sgt. Edward Maloney, an experienced retired cannoneer, who was instructed to fire the cannon once every half hour during foggy weather. However, government officials did not realize how long the fog would linger at the “point.”
The good sergeant wrote his superiors: “I cannot find any person here to relieve me, not five minutes; I have been up three days and nights, had only two hours rest. I was nearly used up. All the rest I would require in 24 is two, if I could only get it.” By the time the government hired him an assistant, Sgt. Maloney quit.
The fog cannon was discontinued on March 18, 1858 when the government came up with a new invention – a mechanically struck fog bell that went into operation on the same day.
At that time, someone in the Lighthouse Establishment had the foresight to make sure the Point Bonita cannon was saved as an artifact, because 57 years later, it showed up on display at the gigantic Panama-Pacific Exposition held in 1915 at San Francisco, California.
But what happened to the cannon after 1915? It seems to have disappeared. Did some bureaucrat decide that it was too heavy to move around and had it disposed of? Was it sold? Was it donated to a museum somewhere? We don’t know. Perhaps one of our readers knows the answer. In the meantime, it remains another one of lighthouse history’s unsolved mysteries
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2023 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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