By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jun 08, 2022 at 10:03 AM

That horn you heard last night?

It was a foghorn, of course, more than likely from a ship's horn. But it may or may not have been the breakwater lighthouse foghorn that used to lull so many of us to sleep.

The lighthouse's horn hasn’t been routinely activated by the U.S. Coast Guard in many years, and a call over to the the USCG station in Bay View confirmed that.

“We wouldn’t be the ones sounding that foghorn,” I was told this morning. “If there was a vessel out there (in the fog) it would be required to sound its horn.”

That may be the reason for the horn, which was so loud that one person said it could be heard in Riverwest, “as loud as day.” A Facebook commenter said she heard it at 14th and Oklahoma.

It was reportedly sounding for about an hour beginning around 8 p.m. – the same time that the Vantage Cruise Line's Ocean Explorer departed Port Milwaukee's South Shore Cruise Dock, destined for Mackinac Island. Most likely the vessel was sounding its own horn, as a dense fog advisory at the shore and on the lake was in effect from 11:59 a.m. Tuesday until 4 a.m. Wednesday morning.


However, it's possible it was the foghorn mounted outside the Art Deco breakwater lighthouse that is a Milwaukee landmark, activated by the passing vessel. 

(NOTE: A reader who was out on the breakwall as the cruise ship passed, confirmed that it was the ship sounding its horn, one blast at a time, not two as would have been the case had it been the lighthouse foghorn. Since then, Brandon Schmitz shared an audio recording of the horn.)

According to the Coast Guard, passing vessels can activate the horn by hitting their mic five times on a specific channel, which would activate the horn, causing it to sound two blasts every 20 seconds. That would allow the vessel to locate the lighthouse in the dense fog using audio signals.

Like many I used to hear the breakwater light foghorn regularly at night when I lived on the East Side, and I liked it, found it comforting.

So I was thrilled to be able to ride out to the breakwater with the Coast Guard a number of years ago and actually stand next to the horn, which, thankfully, wasn’t sounding at the time.

The horn was not, however, universally beloved, as there was at least one local symphony director who was irritated by it, noting that it was not properly tuned.

While some might've found it annoying last night, I'm sorry I didn't hear it from where I was – whether it was a nostalgic blast from the past or a regular blast from a ship passing in the night.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.