| November/December 1970

  • Joe Dennis whistle
    The Joe Dennis whistle. Courtesy of L. G. Simpson 26 Valley View Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45405.
    L. G. Simpson
  • Joe Dennis' engine No. 290
    Joe Dennis' engine No. 290 of the A & WP RR. Courtesy of L. G. Simpson, 26 Valley View Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45405.
    L. G. Simpson

  • Joe Dennis whistle
  • Joe Dennis' engine No. 290

26 Valley View Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45405.

In the days of the old steam locomotive, there were many men with a practiced art on the whistle cord. Few however, really mastered the art to the point of wide fame, as did our hero described here. The exact dates herein are unknown to me, but we can establish the general era as being from about 1920 and going into the middle 1940's. Many of you older folks may well remember the events related here. If you do, I will welcome more information and would indeed, appreciate hearing from you.

The location of this story is in the deep south, in the state of Georgia that is well known for its railroad romance. Centered at Atlanta, are three railroads of fair size, all jointly owned by one company. The Georgia RR, the Western Railway of Alabama, and the Atlanta & West Point Route, like many other roads, had some fine examples of steam motive power. These three roads, who catered to the needs of both shippers and passengers alike, were very proud of  their ability to be able to serve them with high efficiency. We are concerned here with the passenger service. Among the finer and noted passenger trains, were the Crescent Limited, and the Piedmont Limited, both famous in railroad circles and the local traveling public. These runs were also recognized for their 'on time' record.

Among the many engineers that were employed by the company, was Joe A. Dennis, whom in addition to being a hogger, was also the town's mayor of Palmetto, Georgia. Both of these jobs gave just cause for his popularity. Another good cause was his art of being able to make a locomotive whistle somewhat human, or something alive at least. He had his own very special style that was recognized by all who knew him, especially those living near the railroad's mainline. Many other envious hoggers tried to imitate Joe's style, but none of them could fool the public into thinking that they were Joe doing the honors.

After trying out several different types and sizes of whistles, Joe settled on the 6 inch diameter 'CROSBY' 3-chime type with a built-in valve. Its deep mellow steamboat tones were sure to, and did do, the job he expected. He constructed his own design of blowing lever for the whistle. This lever being quite long, almost as high as the whistle itself, when attached. The lever was forged at the Montgomery, Alabama, shops, and being an extra long affair, it gave Joe a very sensitive control of the of the forth giving sounds. By keeping the slack in the cord, at a minimum, he could make the whistle respond to his every desire. Joe once said that he could get just about every note found on a violin, from that whistle. He could imitate a haunting laugh, a whippoorwill, play tunes on it and make it scream like a banshee.

Joe ran several engines while working for the railroad. One was the still living Atlanta & West Point No. 290, a Lima built pacific type, constructed in 1926. The last engine that he ran before retiring, was the Western Railway of Alabama No. 181, a 4-8-2 mountain type built by Richmond Works, in 1920. Whenever Joe changed engines, he removed his whistle and transferred it to the newly acquired engine, for wherever Joe went, so did the whistle.


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