E. Jay Quinby at the Thomas J. Nichol instrument on the Str. AVALON in 1959.

E. Jay Quinby at the Thomas J. Nichol instrument on the Str. AVALON in 1959.

This letter from E.J. Quinby to Richard Simonton explains the purchase of the DELTA QUEEN calliope and the efforts to obtain it rather well.  This letter comes from the Inland Rivers Collection of the Cincinnati Public Library, Cincinnati, OH.

     30 Blackburn Road
     Summit, NJ.    
     April, 10, 1958

Dear Dick:

    To New Haven and the Branford Electric Railway Saturday April 5th to arrange final preparations for the opening of our 1958 season operations, including the completion of the switches leading to the new car barns, the overhaul of the diesel-electric 600 volt d. c. power plant, the refreshment and souvenir stand, the new picnic grove on the island, (which has required construction of a short entrance causeway across the marshland and felling of a sufficient number of trees to make room for the benches, tables and outdoor fireplaces, and retiring rooms,) tightening up the slack trolley wire, bracing the rail at curves, painting the signals and some maintenance work on the cars.

Thence to Waterbury to see a man about a Calliope.

     I caught up with one Ellsworth W. (“Slim”) Somers,-a real character.  He has a barn full of Calliopes, mostly of the compressed air variety, -albeit he does possess two Steam jobs.  He furnishes Calliopes for parades, carnivals,  small circuses, celebrations and the like.

    Slim has an important job as an executive of the Somers Brass Company in Waterbury, adjacent to his residence.  You will no doubt recall that Waterbury is a famous brass town, that it suffered severely from the floods of 1957 on the Naugatuck River which bisects the town, and that it is number one on the list of towns now suffering from unemployment in Connecticut.  However, Slim’s plant, on high ground, was unaffected by the floods, and seems to be weathering the slack times very nicely.  Slim himself is a Circus Buff, having run away from home and the fireside of a very respectable, aristocratic family at the tender age of 15 to join the circus.  His chief hobby today is Calliopes, and of these his first choice is (of course) the steam type.  His cousins and his aunts and his brothers and his sisters seem to feel that he should spend less time fooling with his calliope interests and more time as a respectable executive of the Somers Brass Company, but they take an indulgent attitude, since Slim’s mother passed away recently and left most of her money to him!  So he can afford the very best cut plug, and chews it incessantly.

Slim’s wife is a rather petite blonde who, up until the time she married Slim about five or six years ago, -was a Circus Bareback Rider.  During the Summer months, she operates a Tourist Attraction at Penn Yan, New York, up in the Finger Lake section, which they call CIRCUSLAND.  It is something like Knott’s Berry Farm, only devoted to Circus Lore, and on a somewhat smaller scale, - although it is growing.  They have a few elephants, cats, monkeys, trained horses, etc.  It is a Mecca for adult Circus Buffs and for any family with kids.  Of course they have a calliope there, mounted in a horsedrawn, gawdy circus wagon.

    I seemed to get along pretty well with Slim and his wife (her name is CLEONE DULCINIA!)- probably because of my interest in organs, calliopes and steamboats.  They of course feel that we should inaugurate a Showboat flavor in the main saloon of the DELTA QUEEN, -which of course is a possibility.  As the evening waxed late we drank Scotch Highballs, spun yarns of the circus, the showboat and the calliope.  When it came time for me to leave and go to a hotel, they insisted that I tie up with them, - so they gave me a wonderful room with a double featherbed and bath.  They have a very lovely, attractive home, with every modern comfort and convenience. 

    Slim has one Steam Calliope that he wants to keep and operate.  The other one (less boiler) is a genuine Thomas J. Nichol job, with sweet-toned copper whistles and he will consider selling it to us.  It is the Calliope from a very famous Ohio River Showboat named the WATER QUEEN, which sank in the mouth of the Kanawha River during the 1936 ice-jam.  L. Ray Choissier (“Crazy Ray”) was her famous Calliopist and it was he who returned to the scene is 1938 and salvaged this instrument from the sunken WATER QUEEN.  It has 32 whistles and balanced valves.  The keyboard is new, having been installed by Slim Somers (from a Hammond Organ).  These rare whistles are the chief asset.  Bottom C is abour 6” in diameter, -not puny like the air jobs.

    There were not more than 60 or 70 of these steam calliopes ever built, and this one comes from the most famous builder of them all.  While the inventor, Joshua Stoddart, built a few (he patented the thing in 1855), it was Nichols who really made a business of the Steam Calliope at Evansville, Indiana.  The original Steam, Calliope has a manifold for the whistles shaped like an A. with the tracker wires leading from the whistles to the keyboard across the open end of the A.  Later, a few were built by the Cincinnati Bell foundry, with the whistles mounted in an inverted U shaped manifold.  But it was evidently Nichols who produced the design with the whistles mounted on a sort of grid, shaped like the letter H with several cross-bars.  The whistles were mounted on six cross-bars, and steam flowed through these cross bar pipes from the two large parallel pipes forming the left and right sides of the H.  The keyboard was across the open bottom of the H.  This is the design of the Calliope which Slim is willing to sell us.  The valves need working over (lapping), as a few leak steam, but this should not be a major undertaking.  In fact I would be interested in developing an electro-magnetic action for the valves, for two reasons.  First, it would provide fast, snappy action for lively music, and second, it would permit remote location of the keyboard to get the damned Calliopist away from the live steam.  The DELTA QUEEN has an ample supply of STEAM as well as an ample supply of DIRECT CURRENT which would be ideal for these solenoid magnets (they would be much heavier and {more} powerful than the little electro-magnets used in organ windchests.) The valve-stem itself could be extended (with ferrous material) to form the armature of the solenoid magnet, which could operate on 110 volt with mercury switches at the keys.

    Slim Somers wants $950. for this instrument.  He exhibited his records on the job, which reveal that this is exactly the sum which it has cost him to date, including the original purchase price from Ray Choissier (via King Bros. Circus) and the new parts he has made and installed.  I don’t think we are in a position to bargain with him for a lower price, because he is reluctant to sell it to ANYONE, except someone who, like us, will really put it to spectacular use.  He is apparently comfortably fixed, and does not need the money.  Under the circumstances I think he offers it to us for exactly what it cost him, only because he is almost as fascinated with our project as he is with his own hobby.

    I have asked him to give me an opportunity to take this matter up with you before arriving at a decision, and he agreed.

    Let me know how you feel about it.  The only other instruments comparable to this that I know of, are in museums like the Ford place a Dearborn, the Marine Museum in Marietta, Ohio or the Cleaver-Brooks at Milwaukee (for the annual Steam Carnival of Steam Tractor Engines, etc.)  Do you know of any others?

Bes(t) wishes from Margaret and myself to both of yez.  Hope to hear from you soon by mail or direct hook up!

     73,  Jay

previous< part 3 of 6 >next

donations welcome