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by Bob Brooke

The calliope has long been associated with circus parades and steamboats. Early in the 19th century, Vermont farmer Joshua Stoddart originally designed this unique instrument 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 cacophonous mixture of toots, whistles, and screeches.

A calliope's 32 brass keys got insufferably hot. Devotion to it in 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 horseshoe-shaped manifold held the calliope's whistles, with a brass keyboard in the open end of the encircling manifold. 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, connected each key to a steam valve on each pipe. The player had to push down with all his strength to open the valve against the steam pressure.

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 art.

Captain Quimby, a naval electronics expert, 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 no longer plays on, tooting loudly as it once did as the historic steamboat departed each port, traversed each lock, and steamed under each massive bridge. Without the calliope, steamboatin' would still be fun. But it certainly wouldn't be as memorable.

Watch and listen to the Delta Queen's calliope.

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