The Joe Dennis whistle. Courtesy of L. G. Simpson 26 Valley View Drive, Dayton, Ohio 45405.
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.