Your Village: What happened to Iowa City’s steam whistle?

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The University of Iowa’s newest steam whistle, installed in 2015. — photo by Tim Schoon, UI Office of Strategic Communication

What happened to the steam whistle at the power plant? Will they bring it back? I heard it may have been down for repairs a while back, and then I heard nothing about it ever again. —Becca, Iowa City, via Facebook

The steam whistle at the University of Iowa Power Plant had been part of Iowa City’s daily life for almost 80 years, when it was silenced last December. Director of UI Utilities Glen Mowery had noticed a difference in how the whistle sounded, and after monitoring decibel levels over a seven-day period, it was determined the vintage whistle had become loud enough to be a hazard to people working near it.
A Jan. 4 tweet from UI’s official Twitter account explained, “The Power Plant whistle, which traditionally sounds off at 8 a.m., noon, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., went off-line for condition and service assessment on Friday, Dec. 14 until further notice.”

There are plans to repair the whistle and return it to service, but that’s not as easy as it sounds. The whistle is a Lunkenheimer Atlantic Line Three-Whistle Chime manufactured by the Cincinnati Value Company over 100 years ago. The company still exists, but, unsurprisingly, it no longer makes steam whistles, so parts to fix the whistle may be difficult to find, and, most likely, they’ll be quite expensive. Restoring the whistle to working order isn’t a high priority, since it no longer serves a practical function at the power plant.

The whistle’s schedule used to mark the beginning of the working day, the start and end of the lunch hour, and quitting time.

Despite its advanced age, the current whistle is not the power plant’s original steam whistle. It was installed in 2015, replacing one the plant had used for 20 years. According to a history of the steam whistle published by the university, the first power plant steam whistle “was installed in 1939, a gift from 1901 alumnus Fred Sargent, president of North Western Railways.” That original whistle was replaced “sometime in the 1970s,” and the second one lasted until the ’90s.

The power plant whistle wasn’t the first steam whistle to be associated with UI. That honor — if that’s the right word — belongs to a portable steam whistle a group of UI engineering students rigged up in 1904.

The students brought the whistle, complete with a small steam engine to power it, to the annual Iowa vs. Iowa State football game, which was held in Iowa City that year. After stuffing their ears with cotton, they blasted the whistle whenever Iowa State had the ball.

Somewhat surprisingly, no one — neither the refs nor school officials — stopped them. (Actually, maybe it wasn’t that surprising, since the early Iowa vs. Iowa State games regularly featured unsportsmanlike behavior.) Iowa won the game, 10-6.

“[T]he use Iowa made of an earsplitting steam whistle during the game” was “quite the worst thing of the entire season,” the Iowa State Register, a Des Moines newspaper, wrote after the game. “This contrivance seriously interfered with the visitor’s signals. Even more disgusting was the continual exhibition of this noisemaking device whenever the loyal rooters of Ames sought to encourage their team by good wholesome cheering.”

It seems the portable steam whistle was retired after that game.

Following the next year’s game against Iowa State, the Iowa Citizen (the paper that would eventually contribute half the name of the Press-Citizen), said, “The game was a clean one and re­markable for the amount of straight football shown. There was no steam whistle on the side lines this year to which Ames could lay the blame of defeat. No slugging at any time appeared in the game.”

Iowa won that game, 8-0.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 260.

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