The story of Tell City’s whistle concert

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Story By Kathy Finley


Aug. 1, 1960, was a famous day in Tell City. The AP and the UPI wire services sent out a story and it was published all over the United States in far-distant cities.

The army’s official publication, “The Stars and Stripes,” carried a lengthy article that was read by servicemen, including those serving in Korea and Cambodia. 

The London Telegraph in Nottinham, England, carried the story. “Iron Man Album Magazine” had a six page article about this big event. Kathy and Mike Finley of Finley’s Antiques and Custom Framing obtained a copy of a 1962 edition of this magazine from Dave and Evelyn Adams of Tobinsport,  which resulted in further research being done by Kathy.

Steam whistles, which could be heard for miles, were used for many years in Tell City to announce the start of the work day at 7 a.m., lunch hours at noon and 1 pm, the end of the work day at 5 pm, the arrival of steam boats and fire alarms. A fire whistle was still in use in 1960.

A unique ‘Concert’ of 36 steam whistles  from past steamboats, trains, industrial plants and other sources, was the feature of the second annual Schweizer Fest held in Tell City, 5 p.m. Monday night, Aug. 1, 1960. The concert lasted approximately one hour and 15 minutes. Arranged by Bert Fenn, vice-president of the Tell City Historical Society and also vice-president of the Tell City Chair Co., and Alan L. Bates of Louisville with the help of Charles Schreiber, Jr., the whistles were blown from the roof of the chair company factory, whose boilers supplied the steam.

Of special interest to visiting river-men were the steamboat whistles that had been loaned for the occasion. Prominent among them was the whistle from the St. Louis and New Orleans Anchor Line steamer Gold Dust, a large single-chime brass whistle, with a bell 24 inches high by 7 inches in diameter. The Gold Dust is the vessel on which Mark Twain made a trip from St. Louis to Vicksburg, in 1882, commemorating his return to the river after an absence of 21 years and which he described in ‘Life on the Mississippi.’

These whistles were loaned by museums, libraries, and collectors. You were encouraged to bring a tape recorder and make a record of this event. Programs were distributed listing the origin and description of each whistle.

On Saturday, Aug. 6, 1960, the whistles were blown at random during most of the day for recording purposes. They were recorded by William H. Bauer. All whistles were measured in detail and close-up photos were made of each. None of these photos were located however.

Probably the biggest whistle was a wildcat whistle from the Langstaff Planing Mill in Paducah, Ky., which had a bell 30 inches long and 9 inches in diameter. The plunger travels 20 in. There were several towboat whistles and eight whistles from steam locomotives.

Each whistle was sounded several times, followed by a pause before the next whistle was blown, so that listeners could follow the program and identify each whistle. No attempt was made to set a speed record, there were delays while whistles were changed on the mountings.

Spectators were advised that the whistles would sound best a few blocks away from the blowing site. Most Tell Citians were able to enjoy the concert from their own yards.

The program, “Schweizer Fest Steam Whistle Concert, First Of Its Kind Anywhere, 33 Whistles, To Be Blown In This Order From The Boiler House Roof of Tell City Chair Co. Factory No. 3,” listed:

No. 1 – Tell City 5 o’clock Factory Whistle. Simultaneous blowing of the Tell City Chair Co. Plants No. 2 and No. 3 and the Fischer Chair Co.’s quitting time signal began the concert.

No. 2 – Knott Manufacturing. Co. Wildcat Whistle. Wildcatted means it has a sliding piston which raises the pitch from a rumble to a high pitched scream.

No. 3 – Sternwheel Towboat “Wynoka” built in 1899 and sank in 1939. The whistle had a bullet dent near the top where an angry fisherman took a pot shot at the Wynoka when it disturbed the fisherman’s net and lines.

No. 4 – L & N Berkshire. It was one of the last steam engines built for the US railroads between 1941 and 1952. The whistle was a three chime whistle.

No. 5 – Southern Railroad Whistle – It had one deep note. It was originally used on an ocean freighter, cut down and put on a Southern locomotive.

No. 6 – The Tell City Furniture Co. It was likely used since 1859, one year after Tell City was founded.

No. 7 – Sternwheeler towboat “Charles R. Hook.”  The boat was built in 1922 and retired in 1957. The whistle was two separate whistles on a T mounting.

No. 8 – K & I Engine No. 40. It was a switcher built in 1930 and was famous for her run away without an engineer, steaming from Louisville to  Duncan Hill near Edwardsville, when steam ran out.

No. 9 – Sternwheel towboat “Chickamauga.” The boat was built in 1915, sank in 1926, raised and rebuilt. The whistle was three separate whistles on a manifold mounting.

No. 10 – Sternwheeler “Ed J. Howard.” A Louisville, KY harbor boat built from the “Chickamauga” in 1927. The whistle was a single chime separated in the center to produce a bell above and a bell below.

 No. 11 – Wildcat Steamboat Whistle. The whistle was refurbished and likely used on the Green River packet “Evansville” for many years.

No. 12 – L & N 152  – It was a Pacific type passenger steam locomotive built in 1905 and used in the filming of the movie “Raintree County.”

No. 13 – Raffle Whistle – This 3-chime brass whistle was purchased at a junk shop a month earlier and was given to the out-of-town whistle lender whose name was drawn from a hat.  Cincinnati Marine Service was the winner.

No. 14 – Sidewheel steamboat “Gold Dust.” This boat was built in 1877 and sank in 1892 after a boiler explosion. After the whistle was salvaged it remained in use for years at several Tennessee businesses.

No. 15 – I C Whistle  – It was rescued from a scrap heap and was a large 3 chime whistle made of brass.

No. 16 – The “Ready Whistle” from the Big Sidewheeler “Grand Republic.” This was not the roof whistle, but the ready whistle used by the engineer to signal the captain he was ready.

No. 17 – Steamer “Bowling Green.” This boat sank in 1920 and the whistle was the only thing salvaged. It has a long history of service on other boats and consist of two whistles on a T mounting. Both are 8” diameter, one bell is 18 ½” long and the other a 12”bell.

No. 18 – Steamer “Casablanca.” These boats, known as “DCP’s” were built for the Defense Plant Corp. in 1944 for World War II. The cast iron, 3-chime whistle was taken off the retired boat for the concert.

No. 19 – Auction Whistle No. 1 – It was auctioned off to the highest bidder at the Schweizer Fest Beer Garden Aug. 1, 1960 at 7:30 pm.

No. 20 – The Tell City Spoke Co. The factory established in 1889 was located on the south side of the flood wall in the area of the Port Authority today. They manufactured spokes for wagon wheels.

No. 21 – Southwestern Furniture Co. Wildcat Whistle. The factory was founded in 1873 using a different whistle at that time. In 1917 when an addition was added to the plant this whistle was installed. It was previously used by the Tell City Water Works.

No. 22 – L & N 1878. This was a Mikado – type freight engine built in the 1920’s. The whistle was a 3 –chime.

No 23 – Truck Exhaust Horn. In earlier days, autos and trucks were fitted with whistles such as this one, which operated on their manifold or exhaust. Tell City Brewing Co. had an exhaust horn on its old solid-tired International Truck such as this.

No. 24 – The Towboat “Tom Push.” This was a diesel boat and used air to blow this whistle in place of steam.

No. 25 – Steamer “John W. Hart.” This boat was built in 1890 and was a good low water packet until she burned in 1897. The whistle was recovered and used by various factories through the years.

No. 26 – Auction Whistle No. 2. This was a single chime whistle with a 5 ¼” bell and 3 ½” diameter and was auctioned off to the highest bidder at 7:30 in the Schweizer Fest Beer Garden, August 1, 1960.

No. 27 – New York Central Whistle. This was a most unusual whistle, a cast brass 5-chime whistle, which is to say it is five separate chambers in one casting, all of which blow simultaneously from one “bowl.”

No. 28 – Steamer “C.C. Slider.” This sternwheel towboat was built in 1928 and was dismantled in 1952 in the local Maxon yard. There were two 3-chime whistles on a T mounting so six notes were heard when this one sounded off.

No. 29 – Southern Engine No. 6282. This was a freight engine that ran between Louisville, Ky., and Danville, Ky.

The 3-chime whistle was made of cast iron.

 No. 30 – The Tell City Desk Co. The factory was founded in 1890 and used daily until Tell City Chair Co. bought the factory in 1953. The brass 3-chime whistle was owned by Bert Fenn.

No. 31 – Imitation of Steamer “Indiana” Whistle – The original sidewheel boat was built in 1900 and burned in 1916. Alan Bates drew a scale model of her long after, researched the dimensions of the whistle and had a copy made. The concert will be the first time it will be heard. It failed to whistle on Monday and a substitute was used so as not to disrupt the concert. As Alan tugged away at the lever of his chime, a gust of steam escaped from the valve, blowing his straw hat clear across the roof. A correction was made and this whistle blew for the Saturday recording of the concert.

No. 32 – Steamer “Chris Greene.” This whistle was used on the Chris Green all her life from 1926 until 1947. It is quite large with three separate whistles on a branch mounting, the largest having a bell of 27 ½” high and 8” diameter. The boat was one of the last boats in service between Louisville and Cincinnati and was being used as a boat club in 1960.

No. 33 – Wildcat Whistle From Langstaff Planing Mill, Paducah, Ky.  The granddaddy of all wildcat whistles, the bell is 30” long and 9” diameter and the plunger travels 20.” It is a one-of-a-kind made of pipe and iron.

Three whistles were blown during the concert not originally on the program. They were sounded just before the finale when 10 whistles created pandemonium as they were sounded simultaneously. They were the Tell City Planing Mill whistle which had not been blown since 1942, The Tell City Power Plant fire signal whistle and the new fire siren whistle recently shipped to Tell City for testing purposes.