It begins with a hiss, rises momentarily toward a cathedral organ blast, then fades to an echoing cry — ancient, urgent, soulful and powerful.
Before the end of the month, if all goes well, Vineyarders and visitors alike will hear this wail calling across Vineyard Haven harbor and, at other moments, along the Oak Bluffs shoreline for the first time since the late summer of 1973.
The Steamship Authority is installing an authentic steamship whistle above the wheelhouse of the ferry Martha’s Vineyard this week. Beginning a few days from now, whenever the ferry sails to or from her slips in Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs — and perhaps on other ceremonial occasions, as her captains see fit — she will sound a mighty, arresting blast over the waters of Vineyard and Nantucket sounds.
A whistle once given voice by the boiler and piping of a trim, yachtlike, car-and-passenger-carrying steamboat will holler again, this time by air driven through it from compressors in the engine room of a modern diesel ferry.
In fact it is possible to link the new Martha’s Vineyard whistle directly to a steamer that went into Island service 101 years ago. Her name was Sankaty, and she was the first propeller-driven steamship designed and built for the Vineyard and Nantucket line as the age of the 19th century sidewheelers came to an end.
In the worst loss ever suffered by an Island steamer or ferry, the Sankaty burned and sank in New Bedford harbor late on the night of June 30, 1924, after serving the Island for just 13 years.
She was later raised, rebuilt and returned to service as a car ferry on Long Island Sound. During World War II, she served as a Canadian minesweeper. She ended her days in 1964 as a ferry known as the Charles A. Dunning, sailing between Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
The original Sankaty whistle was replaced late in her career as the Dunning, and the new whistle for the Martha’s Vineyard is this replacement. It is on loan from Conrad H. Milster, chief engineer at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a collector of steamship whistles.
Mr. Milster did not know of the link between the Dunning and her original service as the Sankaty on the Island line when William G. Muller, a noted marine artist and steamship historian from Cotuit, called this spring to see if Mr. Milster had a whistle that a Vineyard ferry could use.
It was Mr. Muller and Bill Ewen — a graphic designer, photographer and himself a respected maritime artist, author, historian and lecturer who lives in Providence and Oak Bluffs with his wife, Sue — who set the whole idea in motion a year ago. Nantucketers had rejoiced when the Steamship Authority installed the whistle of the steamship Nobska, which replaced the Sankaty in 1925 after the older vessel burned, on the ferry Eagle, and it began to echo over their harbor in 2006. Mr. Ewen wanted hear the same old-world hoot from a Vineyard ferry.
“So I started my own private little campaign — we need something like that on the Vineyard,” said Mr. Ewen. “I wrote to Marc Hanover [Vineyard Steamship Authority governor] and he forwarded my letter to Carl Walker [director of maintenance and engineering] and Carl contacted me. It was a question of finding a whistle.”
Mr. Ewen and Mr. Muller reached out to Mr. Milster, who owns the Sankaty-Dunning whistle, and he agreed to lend it to the boat line for use on the Martha’s Vineyard, which in spring, summer and fall sails to and from both Vineyard Haven and Oak Bluffs. Mr. Walker of the Steamship Authority sent a truck to Brooklyn to pick it up.
One week ago, the boat line conducted a test of the whistle at its maintenance facility in Fairhaven. Manufactured by the Crosby Steam Gage and Valve Company of Boston, the whistle, about a foot and a half tall, is forged in brass with a downturned mouth. The handle is long and curved, with a soldered repair in the middle. On the casing, you can make out worn-away patents reading 1877, 1896 and 1908.
In the parking lot, Greg J. Baccari, maintenance supervisor at the Fairhaven yard, rigged the whistle by one-and-a-half-inch piping to a steel air receiver filled to 120 psi. Witnessing the test were Mr. Muller, (who served as the last quartermaster aboard the Alexander Hamilton, which was the last sidewheeler on the Hudson River Line), Mr. Ewen, Mr. Walker, Mr. Baccari and a Gazette reporter and photographer. All wore earplugs, for the wail of a steamboat whistle, even one sounded by air alone, carries for miles.
Mr. Ewen pulled the handle, leaning back to add strength. There came the hiss, the organ note, and then the salute, which reverberated off the steel-sheeted buildings. “The voice of industrial America,” said Mr. Muller as the blast died away. A workman on the bridge of the ferry Nantucket, tied up at the facility for last-minute cleaning and painting ahead of the summer season, answered with a short blast from her own air horn.
Workmen are installing the whistle on the Martha’s Vineyard while she goes through her own late-spring cleanup this week. Piping from a compressor down in the hull will run up to a receiver just aft of the bridge. Pressure from this receiver will blow the Sankaty-Dunning whistle, a three-chamber chime whistle that sounds in all directions.
The Martha’s Vineyard will use it when she arrives and departs from her wharves and on ceremonial occasions. The Coast Guard does not allow a multi-directional whistle like this one to serve for navigational purposes. The ferry will sound her regular horn for those.
H. Flint Ranney, the Nantucket boat line governor, said Nantucketers have rejoiced to hear the Nobska whistle cry out from the Eagle when she sails around Brant Point and approaches or departs her slip. It was the Nobska that last blew a genuine steamship whistle over Vineyard waters in 1973, before the SSA sold her two years later.
That whistle came from the nonprofit New England Steamship Foundation, which tried unsuccessfully to save and restore the Nobska as the last operating coastal steamboat in North America. The Nobska has since been scrapped, but the foundation saved her whistle, engine and much of her irreplaceable machinery.
“For the first six months, two or three people would stop me to say thank you for that whistle every day,” Mr. Ranney said this week from Nantucket. “They still do. The other day, a woman stopped me in the Stop & Shop and said, are you Flint Ranney? I love that whistle. Thank you very much.”