Farm Collector

THE WHISTLE ARTISTE

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.

As a rule, most people admired Joe’s talent with the
whistle, but there were also those who were known to make
complaints about him, from time to time. Mothers of small children,
who lived along the right of way, were a good example. In fact, Joe
went on the carpet quite a few times for excessive blowing.
However, a few friendly railroad men and some of the prominent
citizens were usually handy when Joe needed support.

One Sunday afternoon, Joe was making a run through the Georgian
countryside, and as he came through the hills with a fast train,
his whistle was singing the hymn of ‘Nearer My God To
Thee.’ Nearby, an outdoor church revival was in progress. When
the minister heard Joe, he threw up his hands as a gesture of
silence, and said, ‘Brothers, only a God fearing, Christian man
could whistle as he has done.’ In the eyes of the minister, Joe
was indeed a saint. That is until a few weeks later, at which time
Joe came roaring down through the hills again, but playing to the
tune of ‘How Dry I Am.’ Needless to say, the minister’s
opinion of Joe changed right then and there! He went to Joe’s
officials and told them of the antics previously performed. Joe was
strongly advised to use his steam for pulling passengers instead of
irritating the country folks!

Once, while making another run, and unknown to Joe, there was an
official on board. Joe, in the meantime, had been whistling merrily
down the tracks as though he hadn’t a care in the world. When
the train made a water stop, the official hurried up to the engine
cab where Joe was sitting, and told Joe in no uncertain words, that
he had violated the railroad code of whistling. Joe told him that
the conductor had kept signaling for more whistling and that in
fact, he still had two toots coming to him yet! It seems that a
mule had strayed across the tracks and had not been warned! The
official returned to his quarters, chuckling to himself. It later
turned out that the conductor had known all along about the
official being on the train and had deliberately not told Joe of
it. And when confronted by Joe, the conductor meekly admitted the
act as being just a joke, one which Joe didn’t seem to
enjoy.

Later on, in about 1930, Joe made a daily passenger run which
took him right by his house, where lived Joe, his family, and their
small terrier dog, named Mike. Over the years, Mike had grown to
know Joe’s whistle and associated him with trains. The terrier
would doze on the porch, or in front of the fireplace, inside. Many
of the trains would pass by the house during the day and the
hoggers would try to whistle like Joe, hoping to fool Mike, but he
was too smart for them. He didn’t bat an eye when they passed.
But when Joe was approaching, well that was something to see. And
if Mike happened to be in the house at the time, someone had better
be close to the door, and get it opened fast, before Mike clawed it
down! Once out the door, he would race down through the yard in a
flash, and would be waiting on the embankment overlooking the
tracks. From there, Mike could see Joe as the train passed, and
would howl for all his glory, when Joe whistled! From the years of
observance, the dog learned that when the train was going east,
that Joe would return later that evening, thereby Mike would go lay
by the front gate and wait for his master. However, if the train
was going west, Mike knew he wouldn’t see Joe until the
following day, whereupon he would return to the porch and continue
dozing. People really embarked upon Mike’s intelligence and the
terrier was 13 years old when he died in 1936.

The following incident, although a legend, was circulated so
widely, that it seems only proper to include it here. Legend has it
that Joe would often meet his wife as the train passed their home.
He would slow the engine and his wife would toss a bag up to him,
containing his breakfast. One morning, the weather was stormy and a
strong wind was blowing. Joe advised his wife to stay inside that
day, instead of their usual meeting. However, the weather cleared
and his wife decided that she would bring his breakfast to him
anyway. Joe, not knowing of this, didn’t watch for her, nor did
he slow the engine. As she crossed the track, to be on his side of
the engine, she was struck by the engine’s pilot and was killed
by the impact. From then on, Joe would make his whistle give out a
deep moaning sound, which would remind one of a woman crying from
sorrow, but only when he passed this location. When Joe was later
questioned about the incident, he replied, ‘Hell no, I
wasn’t even married then!’ But the legend had been told to
such an extent, that most people believed it to be a true one.

There are many more very interesting cases involving Joe Dennis,
his railroad life, and his whistle, but space doesn’t permit. A
book could be written about this man and I hope some day that one
will be.

As the sands of time were running out, Joe retired from the
railroad and later he passed on into the great railroad in the sky,
where he is still remembered today. His whistle’s beautiful
tone still lingers on, to those who knew him. I own that beautiful
whistle, which is proudly displayed with my collection of such
items and I consider it to be a valuable page of American history
dedicated to the Iron Men of the world.

  • Published on Nov 1, 1970
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