The calliope has long been associated
with circus parades and steamboats. Invented by Vermont farmer Joshua
Stoddart early in the 19th century, this unique instrument was originally
designed to be mounted on a church steeple to call worshippers to service.
Needless to say, that didn't work out too well.
After many tries, it soon became adapted to life aboard
America's steamboats, filling the air with its cacaphonous mixture of toots,
whistles, and screeches.
A calliope's 32 brass keys got insufferably hot. Devotion
to it the 19th century required more than just talent and a tolerant ear. It
required a masochist's love of being boiled by clouds of live steam and
blackened by soot. A calliope's whistles were mounted on a horseshoe-shaped
manifold, with a brass keyboard in open end of the encircling manifold. Each
key was connected to a steam valve on each pipe by a metal arm called a
tracker rod which curved and coiled to find its way through a maze of
plumbing, carrying the impulse of the each key's depression. The player had
to push down with all his strength to open the valve against the steam
The scalded calliopist would stagger away from his post,
florid of face, with bloodshot eyes and observers would comment that he was
"drunk again." Who could blame the poor soul if he did seek solace
at the bar after that experience.
The calliope on board the Delta Queen was originally
aboard the Water Queen which sank at the mouth of the Kanawha River. The
Water Queen's calliopist, Crazy Ray Chrozier, apparently dived to recover
the instrument and had it installed on a truck to enliven parades and
carnivals, After his death, it went to King Brothers Circus, spent a period
languishing in the storehouse of a secondhand dealer in Chicago and finally
fell into the hands of a retired circus calliopist named Slim Somers.
Captain of the Delta Queen, E. Jay Quimby, was a calliope
enthusiast. He called Somers at his home in Waterbury, Connecticut. But
Somers wasn't about to relinquish his prize. Quimby pleaded with him. If he
would let Quimby have his calliope for the Delta Queen, the world would once
again enjoy its cheerful lilt, and he would be welcome to come aboard and
play it any time he felt so inclined.
It was after 3:00 a.m. when Somers finally became
sufficiently mellowed to see it Quimby's way. He wrote him a check on the
spot and loaded the 32 copper whistles into the back of his car. That was
all he needed for his purpose. Those precious whistles had become a lost
Captain Quimby was a naval electronics expert, so he set
about using his naval training to achieve the first real improvement that
had ever been accomplished in steam calliope design in over 100 years. He
redesigned the Delta Queen's calliope so that no donkey boiler would be
directly connected to the manifold where it would rain flying firebrands and
soot down upon the performer. He also rigged a complex steam line with
reducers for a "more mellow less screechy voice." Finally, he
abandoned the tracker rod system and connected the 32 whistles to solenoid
valves run by a remote keyboard which touched off pipes by electric impulses
instead of bardruckle assault.
While he was at it, Quimby got the inspiration to provide
the aurora effects which tint the steam clouds after dark with impressive
rainbow colors. For years, the straight-faced engineer explained to
passengers that he achieved colored steam by putting lemon, lime, orange,
raspberry, and grape Jello in the water before he fed it to the boilers.
Passengers often volunteered to play the steam piano. If a
panel of judges could agree on what tune the volunteer played, a certificate
of excellence was issued.
Today, the Delta Queen's calliope plays on, tooting loudly
as she departs each port, traverses each lock, and steams under each massive
bridge. Without the calliope, steamboatin' would still be fun. But it
certainly wouldn't be as memorable.