The Johnstown Flood

A locomotive whistle was a matter of some personal importance to a railroad engineer. It was tuned and worked (even “played”) according to his own personal choosing. The whistle was part of the make-up of the man; he was known for it as much as he was known for the engine he drove. And aside from its utilitarian functions, it could also be an instrument of no little amusement. Many an engineer could get a simple tune out of his whistle, and for those less musical it could be used to aggravate a cranky preacher in the middle of his Sunday sermon or to signal hello through the night to a wife or lady friend. But there was no horseplay about tying down the cord. A locomotive whistle going without letup meant one thing on the railroad, and to everyone who lived near the railroad. It meant there was something very wrong.
The whistle of John Hess’ engine had been going now for maybe five minutes at most. It was not on long, but it was the only warning anyone was to hear, and nearly everyone in East Conemaugh heard it and understood almost instantly what it meant.

David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood

7 thoughts on “The Johnstown Flood”

  1. Sorry, PG, $13 bucks for the Kindle version’s too rich for my blood. Too bad.
    Maybe I’ll look in the library, though that won’t create any affiliate income for you.

  2. He could write about paint drying and make it interesting. I listened to this one on audio narrated by the late, great Edward Herrmann.

    Yes, his book on building the Brooklyn Bridge and the one on building the Panama Canal are fascinating as well.

  3. Train whistles? The best job I ever had was as a switchman on the old Milwaukee Road in Chicago. The yard had 72 tracks spanning a mile in length. These were the old days with no radios, just hand signals in the day, and lanterns at night. It was like having a giant electric train set. The nature of a yard like that has individual cars rolling alone along rails after they have had a push from an engine. All over the place. That’s how trains are assembled.

    One of the things one never does is walk between the rails because those singal cars are moving everywhere. So, there I was on my third day on the job, walking between the rails, head down, reading a list of cars we were supposed to get.

    And then the whistle rang out, and didn’t stop. I knew it was the emergency danger signal, and everyone was supposed to check themselves, and look around at the other guys. So, I started looking all over for the idiot who was doing something stupid. A mirror would have helped.

    A second whistle joined the first, and the second engineer hung out the window of the engine pointing at me, and then behind me. Sure enough. A hundred yards back a boxcar was slowly gaining on me, on the same rails I was between. It took a long time to live that one down. But, everytime I hear a train whistle? Yeah…

  4. c4c, apparently comments aren’t showing on posts unless I click on the post – otherwise it looks like everyone has been unusually quiet this week.

    • Thanks for letting me know.

      I’ve used this WordPress theme for quite awhile and like many things about it, but perhaps it’s aging in place and I need to think about a change.

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