Steam Whistles & Calliopes

The Steam Calliope

Who ever has heard a steam calliope wonders how the calliope got her name, taken from the muse for beautiful sound from the Greek mythology. it's loud, but certainly not exactly beautiful, except for people who just love this instrument. The Calliope is pronounced "kally-ope" by circus people, but on the river it's usually pronounced “kal-eye-o-pee”.

Clarke Doc Hawley playing the Str. Natchez calliope
Clarke "Doc" Hawley, one of the best calliope players alive, playing the calliope of the Str. NATCHEZ at New Orleans.

Patented in October 1855, its inventor, Joshua C. Stoddard, intended to use this instument in a church. Soon the calliope found its way to the circus and especially to the floating showboats on the Lower Mississippi River. The FLOATING PALACE sailed by the Spaulding & Rogers North American Circus introduced the first calliope on a show boat. It did not only attrack the audience but also outperformed the bands of competing boats simply by being much louder. After Civil War the showboat NEW SENSATION reintroduced the calliope again, in 1877.

The EXCELSIOR, in the St. Louis - St. Paul trade on the Mississippi River, was the first western steamboat to have a calliope. Other sources claim that the UNION got the first steam piano in 1858.  

The DELTA QUEEN in 1960 received the first calliope with a remote keyboard located a safe distance from the whistles. It was installed by he famous Commodore E. J. Quimby, who found an instrument salvaged from the showboat WATER QUEEN for this purpose.

Many of the calliopes you still find today on several boats were built by Thomas J. Nichol of Cincinnati, Ohio in the late 19th and early 20th century. The DELTA QUEEN's calliope is one of them, the President carries at least some remainings of an other of these great calliopes.

Belle of Louisville Steam Whistle

Steam Whistles

Steamboats did not always have steam whistles. Before that, bells had been used for passing signals and other communication between boats. According to Way's Packet Directory, the 1844-built REVENUE had the first steam whistle installed on a steamboat. Other sources are mentioning the MINGO CHIEF in the same year. Today whistle signals are still accepted as official passing signals on the rivers, but radio has replaced their function as required method of communication between boats.

The sound of whistles is varying tremendously. There are high tone, single note sounds, deep, sonorous 3-chimes, combinations of usually three single-tone whistles and much more different variants of steam whistles. Some examples are ready to listen at the whistleblow recordings.

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