- Historic Sites
Locomotive whistles had a language all their own
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
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.”