East Texas Bureau of The News
Dallas Morning News May 8, 1965
LONGVIEW, TexasIf all the noise which John W. Hedge, Longview
has bottled up in a backyard storeroom should blast out at one
time, it’s likely people clear to Dallas would hear it and
think the Trinity River had been canalized overnight.
Hedge never lets the noise escape his storeroom, except perhaps
an occasional ping of a writing pen rapping brass and bronze.
But in the silence of that room, he members sounds he has heard
in other places, and he knows that here he has the capability to
produce some of the most haunting and nostalgic music that has ever
set his eardrums to vibrating.
Hedge is a retired Church of Christ minister who now travels
over the country for a church furniture company. In his spare
moments he searches for and collects old steam whistles.
Now he has 165 or more whistles of all kinds, from tugboats and
merchant marine ships, from sawmills, cotton gins oil refineries,
sugar refineries from all over America and Mexico. He believes it
may be the largest collection of its kind ever assembled.
These are the instruments that have set small craft scurrying
out of the way in fog, that have called men to work and have sent
them home. Some have served as village clocks.
Now Hedge shines them and imagines the sound which each would
make in its own special way if the steam were to boil through it
Hedge has practiced his hobby of collecting steam whistles only
three years. But he spent a lifetime thinking about it.
‘I grew up on a farm near Kilgore,’ he said. ‘The I
& GN Railroad went through our farm with its steam engines
snorting. I got to listening to those train whistles and wondering
As a young man Hedge worked for a time around East Texas
sawmills and cotton gins and he learned about their steam whistles,
how they were designed and built.
In 1912 he became a Church of Christ minister at a country
church near Kilgore. Later the ministry caused him to do
considerable traveling, mostly by train. He used these occasions to
talk to railroad men and learn about their work and, particularly,
their steam whistles.
It has been said by many that perhaps I have the largest and
best collection of these items of anyone. I don’t know about
that – but I know that I have gotten much joy in collecting these
items and in polishing and putting them in shape to be seen and
admired by others.
But it wasn’t until 1962 that Hedge walked into an antique
shop in Glad-water and saw a steam whistle for sale. He inquired
and found it was from an old cotton gin that had been dismantled at
Hedge took the corroded hunk of bronze back to his Longview home
and shined it. He carried it to a Longview manufacturing plant and
persuaded some workmen to hook it up to an air compressor.
They did, but then they backed away without pulling the lever.
They didn’t care to have their eardrums shattered, they
Hedge stepped boldly up, pulled the lever, and stood smiling
while the chime tones of the old whistle blended into one
shattering note and wilted everything in sight. Some workmen in
another part of the plant said later they thought a freight train
was coming through the building.
In the three years since that first whistle purchase, Hedge has
wandered through the waterfront sections of ocean and river towns,
has tramped through the factory districts of cities and has hiked
the backwoods sawmill areas of the country in search of steam
He has encountered wide reaction.
In Arkansas he stopped at a factory and asked if they had an old
steam whistle he could buy. A man said he had one they were getting
ready to sell for scrap metal.
‘Whatcha want that old whistle for?’ the man asked.
‘It hasn’t blowed for years.’ Hedge bought it for
In a sawmill town in Louisiana, the owner was dismantling and
selling out the mill. He cried when he parted with the mill
whistle, saying, ‘I’ve heard that old whistle night and day
for forty years.’
He sold it for $10 to Hedge, who appreciated whistles, rather
than have it thrown in a junk pile.
Hedge acquired the copper and brass whistle that used to sound
as municipal fire siren in Mansfield, La. He bought the whistle
from the merchant marine ship S.S. Horne and the whistle from the
Mississippi River steamboat ‘Okaloosa.’
One came from a tugboat on the Ohio River and another from a
canning factory in Circleville, Ohio. The list is long and he has
each whistle’s background recorded in a book he keeps with
In a plant in Mississippi they gave him a whistle because he got
there soon after townspeople had registered a complaint about the
One of Hedge’s favorites is a whistle which a railroad
engineer, who apparently was a kind of creative artist, designed in
1865 especially for his wood-burning locomotive.
A simple whistle did not give him enough range, so he built a
whistle with five pipes, each of a different note.
‘He could have played a tune on that whistle,’ Hedge
In the process of collecting whistles, Hedge also has acquired
other items-train and plantation bells, bronze mining picks,
railroad lanterns and one engine headlight.
He has no way of blowing the whistles. Even if he did, he
couldn’t in the city. ‘They would run me out of town,’
Hedge hopes some day to find an old boiler-driven tractor which
he can take out in the country somewhere and use to bring his
whistles to life.
If a noise comes shattering through as though every boat on the
sea is on collision course and every worker in America is being
summoned to the job, it probably will mean John W. Hedge found that
boiler tractor and is trying out his whistles.