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Join me this summer as I travel the country to research the steam calliope tradition on America's inland rivers.
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Nichols and Dimes: Weeks of June 30-July 12

Posted 07-13-2008 at 12:55 AM by Jon Tschiggfrie
Pop Quiz: What do the hills of Cincinnati, OH and the mountains near Denver, CO have in common? Hint: Take a look at today’s blog entry title. Answer: Both have at one time or another been graced by the haunting echoes of an authentic Thomas J. Nichol steam calliope.

As we left Louisville, we drove through the rolling landscape of northern Kentucky along Interstate 71 toward Cincinnati. Contrary to popular opinion, this reminded us of Iowa, or at least the part of Iowa that’s nestled between the farmland plains and the Upper Miss. For me personally, this trip was terribly exciting; I’d never been to Cincy before. I had high expectations. This was the town where Nichol originally set up shop and started producing his famed instruments. This was the town where both Greene Line and Steamer Avalon, Inc. ran their respective passenger boats that heralded the tail end of the tramping days. This was the town that real steamboat buffs know and talk about as if it were an old friend. After several days there, I too would come to understand this sentiment.

We arrived in Cincinnati Sunday evening after parting ways with Keith and Judy on the Belle, a pleasant trip after our Delta Queen bust. The skyline was pretty, the people vibrant, and the river shimmering in the setting sun. It was hard not to fall in love with the place, especially given that it seemed to me that we encountered less of our typical weather there than anywhere else. Diane Mallstrom greeted us in the Library’s Cincinnati Room, where we were to conduct all of our research into the Inland Rivers Library. We perused the extensive Showboat Collection and also examined their limited information on Mr. Nichol. Below is the cover page of the company’s product catalog of brass fittings from 1921. We finished going through these files after 4 PM, and we both decided to have our first experience at a Joe’s Crab Shack, in Bellevue, KY, not far from our hotel in Newport. After our early dinner, we drove upriver to New Richmond, OH to see the memorial to Capt. Wagner in the riverside park. The Delta Queen’s two air ventilation scoops are permanently displayed there in memory of the Big E. Later, we discovered the P. A. Denny docked just above the Newport Bridge, and had a nice chance encounter with its new operator, Frank Trainor. Sitting atop the boat just aft of the pilothouse was the second of the triplet calliopes built by Frisbie Engine and Machine in the 70s that we’ve visited on these trips.

Tuesday morning, we met with Frisbie’s current president, Reed Coen. We had planned on speaking with him for only a few minutes, but our stop quickly evolved into more than two hours. Mr. Coen was incredibly generous with his materials and his time, and he also shared many stories about the boats and river people that he and his father have worked with over the years. Below is a photo of Reed’s father Jess in front of the calliope they built for the Str. Natchez with Delta Queen first mate Gabe Chengery at the keys. Back at the Public Library, we continued our search for boat photographs and evidence of calliopes, navigating through over 300 boats in less than five hours. We’ve gotten increasingly efficient at this task, but mostly our success is due to the tireless efforts of the various library staffs; Cincinnati was no exception to this rule. Our last evening in the Queen City was spent in good company with long-time friends.

Sunrise in Cincinnati must be beautiful. Unfortunately, the view from room 117 at the Newport Travelodge is dominated by the curving approach to the Newport Bridge. We headed directly for Madison, IN, and crossed over that fateful bridge where the Delta Queen had, some 36 years prior, bounced off the pier on the Indiana side. Dad related that the pilot on watch commented to pilothouse visitors years later, when pointing out the narrow span, “You wouldn’t think this boat would go under that span, but BY-GAWD I had her there!” The staff of the Jefferson County Historical Society assisted us in tracking down a Mr. William Hoyt, purportedly the true inventor of the steam calliope a full four years before Joshua Stoddard. Exhausted but satisfied, we drove the rest of the way home, returning to our Midwestern abode in the late afternoon Wednesday. Not to be disappointed, the car enjoyed yet another cleansing shower from above.

One day in Dubuque is all we had to recharge our camera batteries, cut the grass, and enjoy some firework festivities over the river on July 3rd. Mom and Caitlin (my better-half-to-be) would accompany us on this final leg. The entirety of Independence Day was spent in a little car hurtling through the Nebraska outback. Out here, the only diversion to keep a man from strangling himself is to count the number of times the interstate crosses the Platte River. For trivia buffs, between Dubuque and Denver, this amounts to twelve. Some more fireworks in North Platte helped us maintain our sanity, along with an exploding bag of milk at a Burger King in Kearney. We were certain that this was the most exciting thing to happen here in decades, and half-expected to see the following morning’s headlines proclaim the event. We finally rolled into the Denver area around noontime on Saturday.

Our destination was a suburb north of Denver called Thornton, where Capt. Gabe Chengery and his family reside. After a warm welcome and a special delivery from Capt. Doc Hawley of the original lyre from the Avalon’s keyboard, Gabe led us to the backyard, where we beheld a relic of the past: the original Nichol calliope off of the Strs. Idlewild and Avalon. With its bright red console and tarnished green copper whistles, the two of us felt like tots on Christmas (in July). Gabe plugged in the air blower and we let her rip. We tootled that thing like we’ve never tootled a calliope before. We spent a good hour and a half enjoying ourselves, playing, talking, measuring, and tuning the instrument (see photo below). Our efforts did not go unrecognized, as a next-door neighbor complemented us with the gift of a bottle of Pinot Grigio. That night we ate at Red Lobster and finished off the evening looking at steamboat photos on Gabe’s big-screen television.

The next day, we attended Mass with the Chengerys at their home parish. I gave Dad and Gabe a chance to reminisce while Gabe’s wife Cindy, Caitlin, Mom, and myself toured Denver’s attractions. Later, we had a second and final session on the calliope (YouTube video here) and then a fine Italian dinner at a local restaurant, before retiring to the Chengerys’ house for home movies of the Delta Queen and Avalon. Two more days in the car traversing miles of sagebrush and desolate plains brought us back to Dubuque, very tired but very elated at the success of our travels.

FIND OF THESE PAST FEW WEEKS: Not strictly a ‘find,’ but still exceedingly interesting. Capt. Gabe took apart one of the whistles and valves on his Nichol calliope to show us the patented calliope poppet arrangement and bowl mechanism. I also had my first experience performing on a tracker, no easy feat (even on air) although terribly satisfying. Perhaps the closest thing to a true ‘find’ is that Nichol’s markings on the Avalon calliope whistles are not sequential numbers as on most other instruments, but rather the bell diameters, offering a good idea of his scaling technique.

MYSTERY OF T.P.F.W: Our mystery this time is that we have no new mysteries. We’ve actually found a lot of answers to old questions on our recent journeys. Of course, we still have many unanswered questions, and will no doubt be calling upon your collective expertise.

JUDGMENT OF T.P.F.W: These postings are getting ridiculously longer every week, but they remain a joy to write and share.

INQUIRY OF T.P.F.W: At this point, rather than asking for particular information, I’ve come to a place where I can begin to make a call for any and all general comments you might have. No offering is too small. Anything that you think should or could be included in this research is greatly appreciated. Please do, however, keep in mind that the scope of my study is specifically steam calliopes on the inland rivers. Your generosity is the backbone of my success.

I am running out of ways to express my gratitude to you all. Constantly, I’m humbled by your kindheartedness and welcoming hospitality. Thank you.

I will have at least one or two more postings following this one, depending on what comes of the next few weeks. It remains to be seen whether or not I will be able to get aboard the Delta Queen and the American Queen to study their calliopes. Any help with scheduling and access to the boats would be a Godsend.

As per usual, address all concerns and inquiries to jdtschiggfri@stthomas.edu.

See you ‘round the bend,

Jon Tschiggfrie
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Posted in Music, Travel
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Total Comments 7

Comments

Old
Jon, wonderful stuff, really, I am sure enjoying your studies. Great picture of Capt Chengery, but I'm thinkin' a can of Brasso in Colorado might be the ticket. I'll be glad to help polish as long as you let me sleep going across Nebraska on I-80, did that too many times (will we EVER get to the Rockies?). Almost as bad as I-70 across Kansas...
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Posted 07-13-2008 at 08:02 PM by Bruno Krause Bruno Krause is offline
Old
I greatly enjoy reading every minute detail of your travels in this untiring quest for calliope history. And that video on YouTube is just terrific! Capt. Ernie Wagner would be delighted to hear you play his favorites on the Str. AVALON calliope -- and a whistle salute to Capt. Gabe for preserving that historic instrument! You are doing an excellent job with this very worthwhile project and I am so proud of you!

As always, it was wonderful to have you and your dad here for a visit. The time is always much too short, but it's certainly QUALITY time!

Keep those blog entries coming (there's no such thing as being too long!) and keep up steam!

"Uncle Keith"
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Posted 07-14-2008 at 09:07 AM by Keith Norrington Keith Norrington is offline
Old
I, too, enjoy your entries. They are never too long. I love the detail. Keep up the good work.

Jo Ann
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Posted 07-15-2008 at 12:48 PM by Jo Ann Schoen Jo Ann Schoen is offline
Old
Jon,
Great report, wish there were more pics. Do you have enough info for your report?
S'
David D.
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Posted 07-17-2008 at 02:56 AM by David Dewey David Dewey is offline
Old
David, I'm working on putting together a photo album on my own website (steam.tomcawvel.com) of our travels over the summer. I hope to have it developed enough to announce on this Sunday's blog entry.

I frankly have more information than I know what to do with! Through the generosity of everyone I've worked with over the course of this research, I have enough to make an hours-long presentation and probably a fairly lengthy text as well. More on these possibilities on Sunday!
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Posted 07-17-2008 at 03:05 AM by Jon Tschiggfrie Jon Tschiggfrie is online now
Old

Little Alice Blue Gown

Jon,

You are some fine calliope player in the style of Captain Doc Hawley, like your illustrious dad and Cap'n Gabe. But, you play with a lively step that is all your own.

Many summers ago, on chilly autumn avenings, I would stand in the warmth of the steam of the AVALON's calliope while Cap'n Doc played.

He always plays Avalon and Little Alice Blue Gown for me.
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Posted 08-13-2008 at 05:15 PM by Shipyard Sam Shipyard Sam is offline
Updated 08-13-2008 at 05:16 PM by Shipyard Sam (h to H)
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Did you get to hear the recordings of Homer Denny on the ISLAND QUEEN (II) calliope at the Cinti. Public Library? I have only one for it.... haunting.
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Posted 08-13-2008 at 05:23 PM by Shipyard Sam Shipyard Sam is offline
 

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