Author’s note: The Seaboard is now CSX. Former CSX employees Curtis Diggs, John McCormick and David Napier gave me information used in this article, as did Gum Springs historian Ann Marks Hough.
Diggs, McCormick and Hough heard “the song that rode the winds” with their own ears.
In the days when steam engines rode the rails, even at night when you could not see them, you could often know who was at the throttle of the locomotive passing by. Above the choo-choo-choo-choo choo-choo-choo-choo of steam pushing drive wheels, above the lesser clatter of passenger car wheels crossing joints in the track, came the whooo whooo whoo whoooooo sound of the whistle as the engine approached a crossing.
Now, a locomotive whistle is a special thing to an engineer. It stands for the engine, the railroad, and in a special way, the person. Because the Seaboard allowed engineers to have their own whistles, the engineer put a lot of thought and care into the choice. One of the easiest roads to distinction was to have a special tone. Some whistles came from manufacturers, others were made in railroad shops. Still others were built by the engineers themselves.
To make a simple whistle was to do in metal what many children once did with a piece of cane pole. The cane section was left closed on one end, then v- notched with a pocket knife about an inch from the open end. Cutting a round plug and flattening off the top side left a narrow channel, which forced the wind to whistle past the notch. A good strong blow into the tube would make a really loud sound.
If an engineer had his own metal whistle, he would climb on the running board of the engine, unscrew the standard one-note whistle from the steam source just outside the cab and screw in their own personal whistle. If a one-tube whistle was good, then two tubes would be better, and a half dozen would be best. Some engineers — Casey Jones was one — had these six-tone whistles. It was easy to identify an engineer by the sound…