Event recreates lost sounds of past century
By Jim Bloch
When Dave Michelson and his crew fire up their giant portable boiler and begin to blow dozens of steam whistles from bygone Great Lakes ships at the 11th annual Whistles on the Water, the massive sounds that fill the air will echo an earlier era when the steam whistles functioned as critical instruments of communication.
“The event is the only one of its kind in the world,” said Michelson.
The whistle blow takes place in St. Clair’s riverfront Palmer Park, Saturday, Sept. 28, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
“A hundred years ago, people couldn’t escape the sound of steam whistles,” said Michelson. “Whistle-talk among ships on the St. Clair River happened all the time and was essential for safe passage. Railroads were much more prevalent and everyone had a steam whistle. Most factories had whistles. Even a lot of towns had steam whistles to signal a fire.”
In small towns up and down the river, a certain number of blasts would let volunteer firefighters know in which zone the fire was burning.
“Farmers’ steam threshers had whistles on them,” Michelson said.
“Now they’re all gone.”
As a boy, Michelson remembers spending summer nights in his grandparents’ creaky home on the St. Clair River, north of Marine City, peering out of his second-floor bedroom window at massive steamships plowing up and downstream in the night, trying to match the unique sounds of their whistles with their murky outlines.
“I was fascinated with the steamships and their whistles,” he said. “There were hundreds of them.”
Michelson’s great uncle worked for the Brake Marine Reporting Agency in Marine City back at the turn of the 20th Century. The firm’s employees rowed packages, mail and telegrams out to the passing ships, just like J.W. Westcott does today on the Detroit River, except for the fact that Westcott uses big diesel-powered delivery boats, not rowboats.
“These guys were so good at identifying these ships by their whistles,” Michelson said.
Many of the whistles are huge, as tall as a sailor, meant to be heard for miles and miles.
“We’ve had reports that our whistles at the event have been heard 18 miles downriver at Port Lambton,” said Michelson.
That means they’re loud. Free earplugs will be available to anyone attending the free blow.
“I’ve spent a fortune on the hearing protection I have,” he said.
The featured whistle at this year’s event is one of two whistles from the William H. Donner, built in 1914 as the exact replica of the Charles S. Price, a 524-foot steamship designed to haul coal. The Price went down in the Great Storm of 1913, a hurricane that sunk 12 ships and drove more than 30 others onto sandbars, shoals, and rocks; more than 250 sailors lost their lives. Today, the Price lies on the bottom of Lake Huron, 11 miles northeast of Port Huron.
The Donner actively sailed until 1969 when it became a floating dock featuring two movable cranes, working various ports in Wisconsin until being taken out of service in 2016. Both ship’s two steam whistles had been mounted to the ship’s smokestack, which was removed when it was retired from service. One whistle ended up in the hands of a collector in Cleveland; the other disappeared.
Today, Al Johnson, the St. Clair entrepreneur who built the portable steam boiler used at Whistles on the Water, owns the Donner’s whistle.
“It hasn’t been blown for 50 years,” said Michelson, who emcees the event.
Plenty of other whistles will be blown, too.
“We will have the usual crowd favorites such as the Bob-lo boat Columbia, Georgian Bay Line’s South American and the bizarre-sounding whistle from the Hudson River Psychiatric Hospital,” said Michelson. “This year’s show with have some of the largest steam whistles ever made. We are really going to test the limits of our steam generating system. If the weather conditions are right, the steam clouds could be magnificent.”
Jim Bloch is an award-winning freelance writer based in St. Clair, Michigan. He writes about the environment, local politics, art, music, history and culture. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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