There's a song on The Band's 1971 album, Cahoots, called "Where Do We Go From Here?" with this memorable lyric: "Did you hear about the railroad going under. How it seems its days are numbered on the board. Well I feel sad about the railroad and it's no wonder. It'd run right by my door. I can't hear it anymore. How can you get to sleep when the whistle don't moan?" Indeed, the railroad whistle, or, in this case, its loss, was one of the most common sounds heard near railroad right-of-ways from the middle of the 19th century until the end of the 20th, when communities began to complain that rather than putting its citizens to sleep, train whistles were keeping them up at night.
Steam whistles on steam locomotives are thought to have first made noise in England in the 1830s. Since the whistle was connected to the same steam source that made the train move, it needed a switch, which is why most steam whistles feature a teapot-spout-like arm that was attached to a cord so it could be pulled when the engineer needed to blow the whistle. Its default position was closed.
As a communications tool, whistles were used to warn of a train's imminent arrival and departure from a station, or to send signals to flagmen. Some of these whistles produced a single pitch, while others made chords. Small whistles made high-pitched sounds, also know as "banshees," larger ones made those low moans. Some trains sported multiple whistles, or chimes, to produce chords, while other whistles made chords due to their multi-compartment construction inside the whistle's chamber. Probably the most famous chime whistle was designed by a late 19th-century train engineer named Casey Jones, whose design was improved upon by the Nathan Manufacturing Company, which began making parts for trains in 1864.
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