Historic Steamship Whistles Sound Again on Cape Cod's Diesel-Powered Ferries

Dec 27, 2018

Credit Monique LaBorde

If you live on the Upper Cape or the Islands, you might hear the ferry whistle every day. Or fifteen times a day. Often, it’s the sound of a real steam whistle. But it’s been four decades since steamships have been ferrying passengers around the Islands.  

The audio of this piece contains the sounds of all the historic steamship whistles mentioned here. It's ear candy. Give it a listen. 

The steam whistles heard around the Cape today are a special project of the Steamship Authority.

Carl Walker is director of engineering at the Steamship Authority, which runs ferries between the Cape Cod and the Islands.

"We’re required to have a whistle on every ferry,"  he said, explaining the project.  "We’re certainly not required to have a steam whistle."

It's called the Steamship Authority because ferries on this route used to be steam powered. But the last steamship was retired from the line in 1973. Today, ferries are diesel powered, and they come with an electronic whistle. It sounds like a giant air horn.

In 2005, the Nantucket board member for the Authority was a man named Flint Ranney. He was so bothered by the sound of the newer electronic whistle, he began calling it “old nasty.” He suggested installing an old steam whistle onto the ferry. And Carl Walker liked the idea.

Ranney helped the Authority acquire the old whistle from the Nobska, an earlier ferry that had run passengers between Nantucket and the mainland from 1925 to 1973. The ship was scrapped in 2006, but its whistle was salvaged and installed on the ferry Eagle.

In trying to install a steam whistle onto a motorized ferry, Walker said, there’s one obvious problem: there’s no steam. To solve this problem, the Steamship Authority installed compressed air tanks behind the pilot house and added air lines to make sure there was enough air for a five second blast.

People seemed to love the sound of the restored ol whistle. Nantuckers started calling the Steamship Authority to complain if the Eagle blew the mechanical whistle, rather than the steam whistle.

So the Steamship Authority went looking for another historic steam whistle. The engineers wanted to find whistles with a history. But finding historic steam whistles wasn’t easy. It took Carl and his team over a decade to find enough for all five large passenger ferries. 

After the Nobska, they got the whistle from the Sankaty steamer. The Sankaty served these same islands from 1911 to 1924. Today, her whistle is on the ferry Martha’s Vineyard.

The whistle on the ferry Nantucket was originally the steam whistle on a boat named Brinckerhoff, a sidewheel steamship that operated on the Hudson river from 1899 to 1941.

The whistle on the Island Home was purchased on Ebay for about $2,700. The Authority couldn’t find out where it came from.

The whistle on the Woods Hole came from the State of Pennsylvania steamship. She ran the Delaware River from 1923 to 1960.

The whistles blow every day when a vessel departs from the slip. For ferries arriving at Nantucket, the whistle also blows when the ship rounds Brant Point. The sound can travel up to eight miles, reaching far inland.

It's a sound of the past, even if it’s a past that not everyone remembers. For many visitors to the Cape today, it’s become a sound of summer vacation. For others, it’s the sound of home.