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Whistle Talk

July 2024
5min read

Locomotive whistles had a language all their own

The switchmen knew by the whistle’s moans
That the man at the throttle was Casey Jones.

As the ballad says, Casey Jones was a famous hand at the whistle. His was homemade, with six cylinders banded together, and he could make it cry like a plaintive whippoorwill, say prayers, or scream like a banshee.

No more ballads will be written about locomotivewhistle maestros, for their day is gone forever. The whistle still talks, but it can no longer sing. Its rise and fall is a saga that can bring fond memories to those over forty, unheard-of tales to those under, and fascinating anecdotes to all.

The earliest railroads hired horsemen to ride ahead of each train to warn the public and to shoo animals off the track. Soon, however, trains were whizzing along at fifteen miles an hour, and the horsemen got in the way. Then the engineer was given a tin horn to blow, and all went well until one day in 1833, when a farm cart tried to cross the right of way at the Stag and Castle near Thornton, England. The engineer’s lungs were weak, the farmer didn’t hear his tooting, and the railroad had to pay for the horse and cart, fifty pounds of butter, and eighty dozen eggs.

Omelets of this size were too costly even for railroads, and soon after the accident the locomotive was fitted with a whistle shaped like a trumpet, eighteen inches long and six inches across the bell. It was blown by steam and produced a “weird and shrieking” tone.

Gradually the whistle came to serve as more than a warning signal. Engineers began to use it to signal their train crews, tower operators, and ground crews. For a while there was great confusion, because almost every engineer used his own code. Then standards were enforced, specifying not only the number of toots per signal but also the number of seconds of a long or short toot. Large wooden posts were erected along the right of way, painted white with a black “W” and various combinations of long and short lines. They not only told the engineer when to whistle but also what.

Standard whistle signals are still in force in most parts of the country. Here are a few you will probably recognize. Each “*” means a short toot, each “-” a long:

* Apply brakes. Stop.

—Release brakes. Proceed.

* * * When standing, back up. When running, stop at next passenger station.

* * * * Call for signals.

- - * - Approaching highway crossing at grade.

—Approaching stations, junctions, and railroad crossings.

- - * Approaching meeting, or waiting points, of trains.

As higher speeds required higher steam pressures, whistles became so loud and shrill that the public grew resentful and demanded that the noise be abated. So, about 1883 the whistle’s sound chamber was enlarged to produce a deeper, mellower tone. This new horn was called the bull whistle.

About the same time that some of the railroads adopted steamboat or “chime” whistles, their chambers were divided into compartments of varying depth to produce differently pitched sounds. When the bull whistle was mated to the chime whistle by dividing the deeper chamber of the first into sections, the mellifluous tone that resulted set the stage for an era of musical creativity.

It began when some engineers experimented by putting blocks of wood or steel balls in their whistles to produce a distinctive warble. Others carried their desire for individuality much further. Special whistles were cast and bored—short or tall, thin or fat, with single or multiple cylinders. The most popular were three-, four-, or five-cell chimes bored from blocks twelve to eighteen inches long.

Soon a whistle researcher found that by “valving,” or varying the steam pressure admitted into his whistle, he could actually play a tune. Railroad literature cites many examples of how practice and imagination gradually raised a humdrum necessity to a fine art.

Many an engineer would signal ahead to his wife by playing “Polly Put the Kettle On.” One, whose spouse had divorced him to marry another, kept her mindful of him by whistling what sounded like her name every time he passed through town. Another, more happily married, would whistle something recognizable to the hearer as “I love you” from across the valley. Gay blades would signal ahead to their girl friends to be ready for a date.

John Cheaves, like Casey Jones, was a whippoorwill imitator, capable of making a whistle cry one minute and sing for joy the next. But perhaps the greatest impresario was C. E. “Dutch” Eiford, for he had a repertory. Once, as Dutch was passing through Stearns, Kentucky, a new minister was delivering his sermon. As he paused, he heard distinctly the notes of the beautiful hymn “Oh, How I Love Jesus.” As the sound died away, he told his congregation, “Brothers and sisters, only a religious man could whistle a hymn as that engineer has done.” Unfortunately, Dutch lost favor with the parson when he highballed through town on another Sunday whistling “How Dry I Am.”


An unnamed Macon, Dublin & Savannah engineer is said to have been so handy with the whistle that he could call out the names of the stations for the conductor. Others could make their whistles beat drums, imitate bugle calls, or laugh.

Perhaps Gus Manning was the best laugher. Once his merry whistle, echoing through the mountains, got him into trouble. He didn’t know that the private car of “Little John” Thomas, general manager of his road, the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis, was waiting for Gus’s train. Coming down the mountain, Gus went into a fit of laughter, bellowing and whooping, that lasted all the way into town. Thomas reminded him, in language as hot as Gus’s whistle, that steam was to be used for power, not entertainment.

Little John had economic justification for the rebuke. A Southern Pacific economist found that each blast of a whistle used up two thirds of a cent’s worth of fuel, and that the piper’s annual bill on one 265-mile segment of the system came to $15,330.

It was the economists who brought an end to the musical era of railroading. Diesel locomotives replaced steam because they are cheaper and easier to operate. Since there was no steam for whistle blowing, the railroads mounted air horns on the new engines. The public disliked them intensely: they could be heard farther than a steam whistle, but the sound was loud and blasting, lacking either nuance or charm.

One Beatrice E. Streb, of Canton, Ohio, summed up the complaints, and in angry letters to the Association of American Railroads said the air horns were “unreasonable, intolerable, unbearable … nerve shattering, sleep—and health-robbing … harsh, powerful and terrifying.” In forty-four years of living near railroad tracks, she continued, the steam whistles had never disturbed her. In the two years since diesel horns had been installed, she had never had a full night’s sleep.

About the only admirers of these air horns were bull moose, to whom, apparently, the blast sounded like the mating call of the female. Sometimes when an engineer in the Canadian woods tooted his horn, one of these great creatures would come bounding out on the tracks with love-light in his eyes. Occasionally a disappointed bull would charge the interloper, with disastrous results to himself and considerable wear and tear on the locomotive.

Modern research has produced a remedy for both the angry cries of the public and the amorous anguish of the moose. Robert E. Swanson, chief inspector of railways in the province of British Columbia, first used recordings to analyze the sound of the steam whistle. These recordings were fed into an oscilloscope, which showed that the note of the whistle was made up of a series of fundamental notes comprising a musical chord. He then recorded the sounds of various air horns to see if a combination of them would produce the characteristic sound of a steam whistle. After considerable research, he found that when six horns with proper fundamentals and harmonics were combined, their sounds would blend and level out into something very like a steam whistle. Later, five—and three-horn units were perfected.

Charles M. Kimball, safety director of the Southern Railway, took a different approach. He experimented with air horns of seven different tones. Assisting him was Lieutenant Charles Renter, former director of the United States Navy Band. For three days Kimball tooted and Benter listened at distances from one hundred feet to a mile. Finally a combination of five horns was picked for the Southern’s passenger and fast-freight trains and a three-horn looter for switch engines and local freights.

Once again such railroads as remain have whistles that produce “music.” The present-day “air-chime” railroad horn gives out a note that is a blend of C-sharp, E, G, and A at different frequencies—a soothing A-minor seventh chord. It may not arouse the “panther from its lair, the birds from their nests in fright” and “carry joy to anxious hearts,” as a local poet wrote of the first locomotive whistle heard at Fort Worth, Texas, in 1876. It may not allow an engineer to play his favorite tunes or call out across the valley to his ladylove. But the air chime is still useful to the engineer in talking to his coworkers, and it still is an authentic crv of the iron horse.

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