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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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Letting Off Some Steam: Weeks of July 20-August 9

Posted 08-11-2008 at 01:15 AM by Jon Tschiggfrie
When I tell people that Iím spending my summer studying steam calliopes, I more often than not am the recipient of a befuddled gaze followed by, ďÖOh. Whatís a calliope?Ē I then launch into my oft-rehearsed spiel on describing this glorified maze of plumbing, which earns a response of a semi-satisfied nod which says, ďI still have no idea what you are talking about.Ē Excusing the nodís clear prepositional transgression, I often refer to circus parades and steamboats, which commonly clears up the confusion surrounding this little exchange. When weíre through discussing what it is that Iíve been doing these past few months, I invariably get the question, ďSo why are you studying calliopes?Ē Itís as good a question as any, I suppose. For one reason or another, there seems to be some sort of general impression of the calliope as one of those too-esoteric subjects, perhaps not deserving of attention, or maybe simply too out-of-date to be of any modern relevance. The fact of the matter is that the calliope is entirely relevant to our time, being a purely American invention and a joyful link to our celebrated river heritage.

How appropriate, then, that tomorrow should see me off to St. Louis, where it is my intention to meet up with, as Travis calls her, the Grande Dame herself. Iím so very excited to meet up with the boat at the landing and take a look at the ballyhooing instrument that probably more people in this country can identify than any other. The original Thomas J. Nichol calliope aboard the Delta Queen is the final stop on my summer-long journey. I am itching with eagerness, even after the veritable Pandoraís Box of information Iíve come across already. One thing always leads to another, and those lead to others in a seemingly endless path of inquiry. And Iíve loved every minute of it.

The past few weeks have been spent mostly huddled in my room at home, synthesizing research and trying to come up with a summation for the University. How hard it is to put it all in less than ten pages! Amidst this anguish, I was able to get aboard the American Queen when she was here in Dubuque nearly three weeks ago. A blessing found in new-found friend Phil Westbrook (pictured at the console below) allowed me to study this instrument inside out, serial number 37-005 (photographic evidence provided) as built by none other than the skilled Dave Morecraft. The instrument is tuned awfully high, apparently due to the efforts of the companyís calliope maintenance man. Several valves are out of commission, but she still has that unique Nichol sound that only Dave can reproduce with immensely satisfying results. I even got to tootle it a bit! There is a YouTube video to prove it here. Please be merciful: itís only the second time Iíve played ďBeautiful Ohio,Ē and the first time I've tried ending with Doc's signature "Over the Fence and Out!"

An interesting letter arrived some days ago from the Jefferson County Historical Society in Madison, Indiana. The second page of their quarterly newsletter bore my name and the nature of my visit there the month before. I had been looking into this William Hoyt, apparently the true originator of the instrument, even though all sources say the success of the calliope is really due Stoddard. Apparently my visit was the most interesting thing to happen in Madison, Indiana in some time, and accordingly I made a mental note to myself that this would be a nice, quiet place to which I might retire.

At any rate, I was granted more or less free reign at the AQís calliope, granting me such photos as the last one pictured below. What an excellent experience! Many thanks to Phil, who, if you donít already know, is a piano player and lounge singer of much talent, not to mention possessive of a graciousness of the highest caliber. I can only hope that my inquiry aboard the Delta Queen will be as productive and fulfilling. If things donít go as planned on Tuesday, then one of my lifeís deepest regrets will be never having had the chance to perform on that calliope.

Mysteries, inquiries, judgments, and finds of the past week number in the hundreds, and since I am neck-deep in calliope materials and deadlines, I must forgo these entries for another time. I am always threatened by the prospect of a final entry, but I have a hunch that this is not it.

I donít know what Iíve done to earn the hospitality and generosity of so many people in the river community, but what I do know is that my work would be quite literally impossible without your help. Iíve counted on you every step of the way, and you have never once let me down. Thank you again and again, and let me know if I can ever do something for you.

Next Sunday I hope to be authoring the tale of my escapades aboard the matron of Western steamboatiní Ė and no, I donít care if that word is trademarked. A nearly-final status report will also accompany this posting to describe just what it is that the University will receive from yours truly.

As per usual, address all concerns and inquiries to

See you Ďround the bend,

Jon Tschiggfrie
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Posted in Music, Travel
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Total Comments 4


Jon, I'm so familiar with questions like "why are you caring about steamboats?", similar to your "why are you studying calliopes?" Is it really important why we do these things? We just do it, we like to do it, we are following out hearts. No specific reason needed for that, right? ;-)
Posted 08-11-2008 at 10:56 AM by Franz Neumeier Franz Neumeier is offline
Anachronism is a word sometimes used to describe the old Delta - I like that one.
Posted 08-12-2008 at 12:06 AM by Judy Patsch Judy Patsch is offline

I'll echo what Franz has posted. I will also tell you that before I went on the DELTA QUEEN to work in the summer of 1975, I had never run across anyone who shared any interest whatsoever in steamboats, calliopes, pipe organs and dirigibles. Well, then I met your Dad, Lexie Palmore, Keith Norrington and some others and realized, hey, it's okay to be into this stuff! One thing I cannot believe, though, is that you rare limited to 10 pages for a paper that you recieved a grant to study....surely they won't limit you to that?!?
Posted 08-12-2008 at 09:08 PM by Bob Reynolds Bob Reynolds is offline

Good job ;;
And thank you for your kind words;;

And, NO it did not sound like that when I built it,,!!


Posted 08-18-2008 at 11:30 AM by Dave Morecraft Dave Morecraft is offline

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