Historic Capt. Tom Greene Letter about the Delta Queen Whistle

This is a letter from Capt. Tom Greene letter to his friend, Dan Heekin. Dan Heekin was an industrialist here in Cincinnati in addition to being a river buff and friend of both Tom Greene and Fred Way. From time-to-time the big Heekin Can Co. building would mount steamboat whistles on the roof and blow them with steam from the big boilers used in running and heating the building. Dan Heekin has been long dead and the Heekin family were prominent here in business and cultural circles.

The letter was discovered by S&D/MOR member, Barbara Hameister, tucked in a copy of Steamboats & Steamboatmen by Ellis C. Mace some years ago. The original owner of the book was never known and how the old letter was forgotten inside is a mystery.

– Comments by R. Dale Flick, who also sent this letter to steamboats.org. Thanks very much, Dale!
– Pictures and whistle sounds added by the editor for illustration.


Cincinnati 2, Ohio

Mr. Dan M. Heekin              November 28, 1949
The Heekin Can Co.
429 New Street
Cincinnati 2, Ohio

Dear Dan:

I am really ashamed of myself for not answering your letter sooner. The fact is my intentions were to see you some trip in town and discuss the whistle situation with you orally. However, since I have been ‘doubling in Brass’ here of late I never seem to be able to get up the ‘hill’ as I have been sort of chained to the mast.

The Delta Queen in 1949, after Tom Greene bought her.

Here is what I have in mind. December 5, 1949 I will know then whether the people who have an option on the TOM & CHRIS will come thru and exercise their option. I have taken the two whistles off the boats and have them here in the wharfboat at Cincinnati where I also have the SPRAGUE’S whistle. Even if these people take the boats I will try and retain these whistles as I don’t think they mean anything to the purchasers. However, I don’t want anything to interfere with the deal.

The Big Mama, Sprague.
Hear the Sprague whistle:  MP 3

I have tried to figure a way to mount the SPRAGUE’S whistle on the DELTA but there are a number of problems such as the size of the SPRAGUE’S steam pipe and the one on the DELTA not conforming. The DELTA’S is 2-1/2″ while the SPRAGUE’S is 3″. The SPRAGUE is a hellva boat. Then the SPRAGUE’S whistle is the biggest damned whistle you ever saw and inasmuch as we would have to lower this whistle in high water if we did get it up another headache presents itself. So altho I feel sort of guilty for not putting it up after Fred Way went to a lot of pains and arguments to get if for us from the STANDARD OIL people I feel it would be impractical.

Delta Queen and Sprague.

Now then, we have spent more that a year arguing amongst ourselves on what to do. Should we take the DELTA’S whistle off, leave it on, put on the SPRAGUE’S, TOM’S, or CHRIS’? There are two different lines of thought and whistle ideology in the G.L. stockholders. You’d think this whistle question was a U.N. problem. We have our own whistle Vishinsky’s who knock things into a cocked hat just about the time I get all set to put on one or the other of the whistles.

I have about decided to put the CHRIS GREENE’S whistle on the DELTA for the following reasons. First of all I like it as it is of low mellow ‘big boat’ quality. I don’t believe it will annoy the passengers sleep and it comes from the HOMER SMITH which boat was partially owned by one Capt. C.C. Bowyer a great friend of my Dad’s and a banker in Point Pleasant, W.Va. Capt. Bowyer was a ‘friend in need’ when the going was rough for my Dad and he went all out financially to help Dad after he had bought the WHITE COLLAR LINE from Commodore Laidley in 1903. Besides a good whistle I feel that it would be sort of a tribute to Capt. Bowyer from a sentimental standpoint to use this HOMER-SMITH-CHRIS GREENE whistle.

The Homer Smith.
Hear the Homer Smith whistle:  MP 3

The TOM GREENE’S whistle is the most historic on the river. It was my Dad’s favorite and some of the oldtimers have said that my Dad bought the WHITE COLLAR LINE to get that whistle. It was then on the Str. COURIER. It had been on the sidewheel EXPRESS which I believe ran before the Civil War. It was later on the Str. ST. LAWRENCE and has always been known as the ST. LAWRENCE whistle. My Dad certainly loved this whistle and it was on nearly all the G.L. boats at one time or another. My Dad sort a wore this whistle as he did his hat and had it aboard the boat he generally thought he would be on for a long period.

The Tom Greene.
Hear the Tom Greene whistle: MP 3

Just a little more history on the TOM GREENE-ST. LAWRENCE whistle while I’m about it. During the 1917-’18 ice siege, the GREENLAND had the ST. LAWRENCE whistle and at that time the GREENLAND was on the docks at the old Cincinnati Marine Ways here in East End. Of course you probably recall the ice knocked the GREENLAND off the cradles at that point and down the river she came in the gorge sideways. As I had been born on the GREENLAND my Dad called my Mother at home in Hyde Park and said, “…get Tom out of school and bring him down here to the wharfboat to see his birthplace go by,” which my Mother did. I was then eleven years old and in the formative age when things impress you.

When I got down to the boat the gorge was moving fast, the other GREENE LINE boats had steam up and were ‘comin ahead strong.’ There was a ‘wailing and gnashing’ of timberheads, cavels and lines snapping. Pretty soon someone hollared, “here she comes,” meaning the GREENLAND. As the GREENLAND hove in sight on her side everybody stood in silence. There was an old purser on the wharfboat who had been on the GREENLAND a long time and he too was in love with the ST. LAWRENCE whistle and he said he would give a hundred dollars to anyone who could get that whistle off the boat when the gorge stopped moving.

The Greenland.

The next couple of days the GREENLAND was down about Rising Sun, Ind., and in the meantime some thieves went out on the ice and took off the whistle, got some chairs and the boats silverware. They were apprehended and the whistle returned. My Dad dropped the charges against the thieves feeling that getting the whistle back and the risk they had taken in going over on the boat in the gorge should cancel the charges against them.

Now then your idea is a good one about the Marietta museum if they can handle it. It seems that this museum has long exhausted it’s space but Fred Way would like to know about it and I will write him on same. Such a windfall as your whistle collection might because for the Ohio State Museum Assn., to start the ball rolling on a new building which is sadly needed for other objects of ‘Steamboatiana.’ Nevertheless I will loan you these whistles as you suggested in the letter just as soon as I know how the ‘deal’ fares in December.


P.S. I would like to hear the SPRAGUE’S whistle just once.

The Homer Smith/Chris Greene whistle served for a short time on the Delta Queen and was replaced by a new one in 19??.

This is how the new Delta Queen whistle sounds:
MP 3