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  • Register:11/11/2008 8:17 AM

Date Posted:02/13/2009 7:45 PMCopy HTML


Steamboats have a "sound" peculiar only to themselves, and among the more distinctive "signature sounds" are the boat's voice-her steam whistle-and her steam calliope, her built-in advertising technique.  Any showboat or excursion boat of any note carried a calliope up on her top deck or on the roof.  It was connected by a steam line direct to the main boiler, or else had a small "donkey boiler" to provide steam just for the instrument.  A calliope is a more-or-less tuned set of whistles (usually 32 whistles, although some calliopes had as few as 24 and some as many as 42), mounted on a U-Shaped steam pipe called the manifold.  By a Rube Godberg-esque arrangement of metal rods connecting the keys and the valve on each whistle, by depressing a key, the rod is pulled tight, opening the steam valve under the whistle and allowing it to blow.  The valves are "balanced", so that when the calliopist lets up on the key, the rod returns to its normal position, closing the valve, and shutting off the whistle!  Sounds simple, doesn't it!?  It is a fascinating instrument to watch in action, but there are a few drawbacks.  First, the keys on the keyboard were usually made of brass) not ivory, plastic or wood) because they were continuously exposed to the weather outdoors.  Unfortunately, with live steam running through the main line into the manifold and then the whistles themselves, they tended to get hot as the poor calliope player struggled through his repertoire.  So...his fingers usually were blistered. Then, the keyboard was inches away from 32 whistles spewing out live steam and raining down hot, boiling water when the steam clouds condensed upon hitting the cooler air in the atmosphere.  Well, the man at the keyboard had to stay at his post to produce the music, so all this steam and hot water blew in his face and rained down on top of him as he played. Finally, there is some scientific or mathematical formula which says the sound of live calliope music improves in inverse proportion to the distance away one gets from the calliope! I mean to tell you calliopes have one speed, one level, one setting only--and that is LOUD!! A typical calliope can be heard distinctly up to five miles away if the wind is favorable (or unfavorable, depending on your point of view and appreciation of calliope music).  All this means that the pitiable soul at the keyboard is nearly deafened by the music of his own making!  Blistered, boiled, drenched, steamed, and deafened--these are the chief adjectives describing the brave calliopist on a Mississippi steamboat.  Every Streckfus Steamer had one of these "infernal music machines".  When the boat arrived in town, the "perfessor" (river-term for calliope player) would start up the loud music.  Three-fourths of the town would run down to the riverbank to see what was causing all the commotion, and half of them would stay for the steamboat excursion once they got there.  The call of the calliope was powerful advertising for any excursion boat--and all at the expense of the poor calliopist!!!



1. Professor Travis, Tall Stacks 2000. Photo Property & Courtesy of Travis V. from Travis' Steam Calliope Homepage. ©2000

2. Capt. Clarke "Doc" Hawley at Tall Stacks 95 Here is Capt Clarke "Doc" Hawley at the keyboard on a sunny warm afternoon at Tall Stacks 95....He will be at Tall Stacks 03...and so should you! See you there at TS 03 in Cincinnati, Ohio on the second week of October 2003! Photo Courtesy & Property of Travis V. @ Travis' Steam Calliope Homepage.

3. Str. NATCHEZ Calliope, New Orleans. Photo Property & Courtesy of Travis V. of Travis' Steam Calliope Homepage.

4.Capt. Clarke "Doc" Hawley on the Str. Avalon in the early 1960's Capt. Clarke Campbell "Doc" Hawley started his river career aboard the Str. Avalon as the Calliopist and popcorn popper. Here he is, late in his career on the Str. Avalon as First Mate and Calliope player. This picture is from the season of 1960 aboard the Str. Avalon. Photo Property & Courtesy of Travis V. of Travis' Steam Calliope Homepage.

To see more about Calliope's...please visit
Travis' site at:
Travis' Steam Calliope Homepage

Photo Courtesy & Property of:
Travis Vasconcelos
Information was taken from an old
Streckfus Magazine dated 1935-1936.

© March 17, 2002


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