The Delta Queen Calliope
The history of the Delta Queen Calliope
produced by Travis C. Vasconcelos for use as research material on the website www.steamboats.org
The Builder of the Delta Queen Calliope: Thomas J. Nichol
Thomas J. Nichol began his calliope career by developing an idea as to how the whistles of the calliope could be built easier, more efficiently, and save money in the process. Mr. Nichol was the bookkeeper for a Mr. Kirkup of the Van Duzen Bell Works in Cincinnati, OH. (Who it is recorded, built a few calliopes himself in the 1880s’)
Mr. Nichol improved on the idea of calliope whistle construction by employing rolled sheet copper as the basis for his whistles. He also cast his base and cap in brass, for easy and quick construction. The Thomas J. Nichol instruments were famous for the tonal quality of the thinner metal. Sweeter-toned, they were called.
Nichol advertised his calliope business from a warehouse at Pearl and Vine Streets in Cincinnati, OH. where he built standard 18, 21, 24, 28 and later 32-note instruments. Most common requests for new instruments were of the 28-note variety. The largest instrument Nichol ever built was a one-off 37-note job. This instrument did not survive to today.
Mr. Homer Denney playing the Thomas J. Nichol built steam calliope of the Str. ISLAND QUEEN (2) 1946 at Cincinnati, OH. Photo from Authors personal collection.
Of the employees Nichol utilized Mr. Homer Denney of the Coney Island Company was the most noteworthy. Mr. Denney was Calliopist on the Str. ISLAND QUEEN (I and II), and an accomplished musician and musical author. Mr. Denney was employed as the tuner of all new steam calliopes built after 1914 at the Nichol facility. Nichol built over 90 of the 150 or so instruments ever built. After Mr. Nichol’s death in 1924, his sons took over the business. They moved the company to Grand Rapids MI. in 1937. They later renamed the company General Fittings and Devices Co and became a plumbing supply house. Though only entering the business in the last half of the heyday of the calliope, the Thomas J. Nichol instruments are the finest quality, best sounding instruments out there. Of the 12 or so functional originals left all of them (with the exception of one) are Thomas J. Nichol originals.
The family sold the patterns and moulds to a Mr. J. M. Van Splunter who continued building steam calliopes and refitting existing instruments until the early 1960’s for many clients both river and circus related. He did not have patterns for the smallest whistles and many of his refitting jobs were on smaller (21-28 note) instruments to make a full 32 note instrument out of them. When measured, it becomes apparent if he refitted one based on this singular observation.
Mr. Harry Stocksdale performs on the Thomas J. Nichol steam calliope of the Str. AMERICA at Louisville, KY circa 1928. Photo from Authors personal collection.
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