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Remembering Showboats and Calliopes

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Old 03-13-2009, 12:38 PM
Join Date: Jan 2009
Location: Greene County Pennsylvania
Posts: 10
Blog Entries: 2
Default Remembering Showboats and Calliopes

“Screeching and yowling like fierce demons, they were sounds I had never heard! High peeps, middle-toned whistle sounds and deep-throated bass. The noise was instantly alarming . . .!”

For several years local journalist Glenn tunney wrote a weekly regional history column in the old Brownsville ( Pa. ) Telegraph newspaper. Since many here enjoy showboats and calliopes, I thought it would be worthwhile to share this particular post of folks remembering some of them, including the Reynolds family's Majestic / Attaboy. Enjoy !

Showboat Comin’!
by Glenn Tunney

“Screeching and yowling like fierce demons, they were sounds I had never heard! High peeps, middle-toned whistle sounds and deep-throated bass. The noise was instantly alarming . . .!”
What was making that fearsome clamor? All sorts of improbable answers ran through young Richie Wells’s mind as he raced into his house, looking for his mother. Richie had first heard the unusual sounds, which seemed to be getting closer, while he was playing in the yard at his parents’ Grays Lane home.
Richie’s mother, a worried expression on her face, stepped out on the porch to listen to the mysterious noises. After a moment, she smiled. She turned to her mystified son and told him about the wonderful summertime delight that was slowly making its way up the Monongahela River toward Brownsville.
It was a treat that was mentioned here a few weeks ago by Pauline Paling Keller of Palm Coast, Florida, who posed the following question to our readers.
“The recent dedication of the new wharf,” Pauline asked, “has caused me to wonder if anyone else can remember when the showboats would dock at the old wharf?”
Reader Andy Matty of Denbo - Vesta Six remembers those floating theaters.
“When the showboat ‘Majestic’ came to Denbo - Vesta Six in the early thirties,” Andy told me, “it would already be playing those calliopes when the boat was still way down the river around Alicia. The Majestic was pushed by a tug boat called ‘Atta Boy.’ It amazed me how that little tug boat was able to push that big showboat ahead of it.
“The boat would head for the Vesta Six mine landing, and when it would pull in, we would all be there waiting for it, having heard its calliopes. The boat docked right there between the two towns, which are real close together.”
For a poor kid in the thirties, the price of admission to see the big show would have been daunting. But Andy and his buddies gained admission to the Majestic by paying for their tickets with a very unusual currency.
“They had two shows,” Andy said, “and our admission was free if we brought coal for them. There was a slate dump nearby where we kids would pick coal and put it in a sack or a bushel basket. So when the Majestic came, we would each take our coal over to the boat and give it to the crew. That coal produced enough steam to play the calliopes, which could be seen on the upper level where the pilot house was. You could watch the steam coming out of the calliope’s tubes.”
Another resident who remembers a magical summer day when the showboat came to town is Beverly Reese Ahmadian of Brownsville.
“I remember when the Majestic docked in West Brownsville,” Beverly recalled, “exactly where the old beach used to be. It had a calliope on the top deck. My, it did echo through the hills! I was never on the boat, but I remember sitting on the river bank and watching the people, all dressed up, walk up the gangplank.”
Don Laughery of Catonsville, Maryland cannot forget the unmistakable sounds that signaled the townspeople that the showboat was coming up the river.
“I remember a few times when a showboat pulled up at the Brownsville wharf,” Don told me. “We could hear the music coming even before it cleared the bend downriver. The sound of the steam calliope, even though I only heard it a few times, is one of the most vivid memories of my youth.
“I wasn't able to afford the price of admission, and at my age I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the show, but the atmosphere surrounding the boat was electric. I think that wharf is partially under water now due to the loss of Lock 5. But back then there was a low wall at the water's edge, then a rocky shelf perhaps ten feet long out to the drop-off. This allowed the boats to pull up in fairly deep water, and they could easily put a gangplank over to the shore.”
As a young child, former resident Richard Wells, now of Mt. Morris, Michigan, was so enamored of his first glimpse of a showboat that he wrote about the experience in his book, “A Boy From Brownsville.” With Richard’s permission, here is his published recollection of that memorable day.
“Before the beginning of World War II,” Richard wrote in his book, “on a bright sunny day in Brownsville, I was playing outside. The usual sounds could be heard of the steam engines of the Pennsylvania Railroad, pulling loaded cars of coal and coke to the blast furnaces in Pittsburgh, chugging on the long, shiny, flexing tracks. The blasts of the steam paddle wheelers’ whistles, echoing through the valley as they signaled the locks of their intentions, gave the dirty river town the feeling of being busy and important. There was noise twenty-four hours a day, but on that particular morning, there was another sound.
“Screeching and yowling like fierce demons, they were sounds I had never heard. High peeps, middle-toned whistle sounds and deep-throated bass. The noise was instantly alarming to anybody who had never experienced the racket. However, they did seem to be melodic. There was some kind of tune to the notes. I ran into our home on Grays Lane and began to yell, ‘Mom, mom, what is all that funny noise?’
“Mother listened, and listened some more. She was an avid reader and decided the noise was, of all things, a steam calliope. Mother said to me, ‘Richie, I don’t know where it is coming from, but it sounds like a steam calliope that showboats sometimes have.’
“‘Showboat? Wow! I ain’t never seen one of those! What is it?’
“Mother described it to me. She had just read the book, ‘Showboat,’ so this entitled her to be the expert on the subject. She described one to me and showed a photograph from the book. I was excited. I just HAD to see it.
“‘When your Daddy comes home from work, he might take you down to see it.’
“When Dad came home from being a Face Boss at Clarksville Clyde #3 mine, I kept pestering him until he gave in. We drove the old 1933 Chevrolet Master Sedan downtown and parked it by the National Deposit Bank. Walking down toward the wharf, we could see the commotion. It was early evening and the light was getting dim, but we could see many incandescent bulbs burning on what looked like a structure, through the opening under the tracks. As we got closer, the very large, bright red boat appeared.
“It seemed about the size of the paddlewheeler ‘Sailor,’ which was the biggest boat on the Monongahela. The multitude of bright lights were down each passageway along each of the three long decks. There was white paint on the fancy woodwork arches over the doorways. The two large black smokestacks were trimmed in brass, their tops fluted. The pilot house topped off the beautiful boat as a decoration atop a cake. It was ablaze with lights and controlled two big searchlights that continually swept pencilled white pathways to the clouds.
“I had never seen anything so splendid. I begged Dad to take me aboard, but he said, ‘Richie, it is too late. I must get up very early to go to work. Maybe some other time.’
“‘Gee, if we can’t go on it, can we hang around some on the wharf?’
“Dad consented to that.
“As we stood there, several of the double doors opened and closed, disclosing a magnificent interior. It was like a gigantic movie theater. It had hanging draperies, gold trimmed and seemingly hundreds of seats. The stage curtain was a deep crimson with gold and silver trimmings. I was amazed.
“The people with the boat also interested me. The boat’s crew did their duties all dressed in red uniforms, trimmed in gold and silver. They coiled lines, rang bells and generally were very active. They didn’t even have time to return my smiles and waves. Then I saw the Ladies and Gentlemen of the vessel.
“No doubt they were the rich actors and actresses. The men were all tall, clean shaven (except for some rakish mustaches) and appeared very dashing. The ladies were magnificent. Red and blonde hair was predominant for the painted ladies. Their makeup was such as I had never seen before. Rouged cheeks, bright red lipstick and very beautiful. It was a lifestyle I had never dreamed of.
“Of course, the calliope was continually blowing now recognizable tunes. It was a glimpse of a different world.
It was a night to remember for Richie Wells, just as it was for Pauline Keller, Andy Matty, Beverly Ahmadian, and Don Laughery. For them, and for many other long-time residents of this old river town, the sound of a calliope still has the ability to do magical things.
“After all these years,” marveled Richard, “I can still visualize the beautiful showboat. And on a quiet, clear night, I can faintly hear the calliope playing . . .”

Column #193 - August 4, 2002
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