The Queen in 1960 received its calliope from Commander E. J. “Jay” Quimby, then the boat’s chairman, who found an instrument salvaged fro the sunken showboat Water Queens in the Kanawha River in West Virginia. The rescued calliope had passed from “Crazy Ray” Choisier, who played it in carnivals until his death, to the King Bros. Circus, to the collection of Ellsworth W. “Slim” Somers of Waterbury, Conn. and finally Quimby. Quimby, an inventor in his own right, installed it on the Delta Queen as the first calliope with a remote keyboard located a safe distance from the whistles. But in 1971, the electric switches connecting keys to the calliope had deteriorated, resulting in an instrument which wouldn’t play or, worse yet, wouldn’t stop. Muster shipped the console to Davis in Seattle, who supplied it with solid-state relays and gave it an organ-like keyboard touch. “This type of keyboard is probably what landed me the job of the new calliope,” Davis says. When Davis got the $35,436 contract for the new riverboat’s steam-throated songstress, he formed the Davis Calliope Works & Custom Systems solely for the project and proceeded to add some improvements to the art on his own. “I just haven’t been afraid to tackle anything, I guess,” he says of his 44-whistle creation, the largest in existence (a 44-whistle calliope aboard the City of Pittsburgh riverboat was destroyed when the boat burned in 1902), a full octave deeper than the Delta Queen’s cally-ope. In addition, the new calliope will have two keyboards, one near the instrument at the stern, one in the purser’s office, protected from inclement whether. [That keyboard never came to pass. Ted] And, in a first-of-its-kind feature, Davis’ electronic outlay will enable him to record the keyboard signals on a digital cassette tape and them to play them back to the calliope, completely eliminating the need for a musician. “No one’s ever done this quite this way before,” Davis says. “This is going to be quite a unique thing.”
The first western riverboat to have a calliope was the Excelsior, sailing the upper Mississippi between St. Louis and St. Paul. But the attraction was soon discontinues after noise gave the Excelsior’s captain (plus some passengers) a headache. But on the Sacramento River trade between Sacramento and San Francisco, calliopes became the craze, later a supernatural legend. Prof. Abe Harcourt, maestro aboard the Steamer Amador, died of a heart attack at his keyboard mid-concert, and tales soon spread about a ghostly calliope serenading the fog-shrouded shores of the river. On the lower Mississippi, the showboat Floating Palace, sailed by the Spaulding & Rogers North American Circus, was the first to use the calliope to summon crowds to the riverbank (the instrument was doubly valuable--it drowned out the bands of competing boats). The Civil War silenced the calliopes on the Mississippi during the fighting. Not until 1877 did one appear on the showboat New Sensation. But the “steam-piana” had captured America’s imagination and, simultaneously raised the ire of musical purists. And there always has been disagreement over what to call the phenomenon--Calliope (mother of Orpheus and chief of the muses) or cally-ope. An nineteenth century magazine, Reedy’s Mirror, settled the dispute, at least for river people, with this rhyme:
Proud folk stare after me,
Call me Calliope;
Tooting joy, tooting hope,
I am the calliope.