By next spring, Island residents and visitors may experience a sound unheard here for nearly 40 years, thanks to the generosity and some effort by Flint Ranney, Nantucket’s member of the Steamship Authority (SSA).
Last month, Mr. Ranney presented an eight-inch three-tone brass steam whistle to SSA Vineyard representative Marc Hanover, for use on the Martha’s Vineyard ferry. The Martha’s Vineyard’s predecessor, the steamship Martha’s Vineyard, had a similar whistle until its retirement in 1955.
“You guys have nothing except those wretched air horns on your ferries. If I had my way, every ferry would have [a steam whistle],” Mr. Ranney said this week. Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard are implacable high school football foes, but it’s all about togetherness where steam whistles are concerned. “We are two small islands. We have to stick together,” Mr. Ranney said.
“I like Marc, and he’s looked a little lonely without a steam whistle like we have on the Eagle,” Mr. Ranney said this week, tongue slightly in cheek. The Eagle is a motor vessel that serves on the Hyannis-Nantucket run. Most of the SSA vessels are powered by diesel engines, including a couple on which diesel engines drive electric motors that, in turn, drive the propellers.
Mr. Ranney also noted some jealous buzz on the Vineyard about the throaty, antique sound of the Eagle’s whistle, salvaged by Mr. Ranney from the steamer Nobska, a familiar off-season fixture at the Vineyard Haven ferry terminal until she was retired in 1973. “We lost the boat but saved the whistle. Actually we found it in 2004, in someone’s garage and had it installed in 2005.
“It sounded for the first time on the Eagle in May 2006. Actually, it sounded about 20 or 30 times. The captain was so excited, he kept blowing it as he entered the harbor. People were coming up to me for months, just overjoyed to hear that sound again,” he said.
SSA general manager Wayne Lamson pored through records this week to estimate that the last time Vineyard residents heard a steam whistle was in 1973, before the big steamship Naushon, designed and built for the Woods Hole-Nantucket service, was retired.
While steam whistles are not an obsession, or even an avocation, for Mr. Ranney, he kept an eye out until he found a suitable whistle. “A guy in Yarmouth had it, so I bought it. It was made in 1877 by the Crosby Steam Gauge and Valve Co. in Boston with a patented three-chime construction.,” he said.
Mr. Ranney is not a fan of the hard single-tone bleat of air horns on today’s diesel-powered ferries. He believes there is a nostalgic quality to the steam whistle that resonates with listeners in an island environment.
“We are people who live on islands, water people. Look, it doesn’t bring tears to your eyes, but it sounds right,” he said.
Mr. Hanover said he is grateful for the Nantucketer’s gift, and he reported that a flurry of whistle hunting mania has taken place in its wake on the Vineyard recently.
“This is a very generous gift, and there seems to be a lot of interest in steam whistles on the Island now. I think management has found the original [steamer Martha's Vineyard's] whistle in somebody’s possession and are asking for its return, and I’ve heard that people in Oak Bluffs have also offered a steam whistle to us,” he said.
Mr. Lamson confirmed that SSA management is exploring ownership, title, and pedigree of what may have been the steamer Martha Vineyard’s whistle. He said the SSA is preparing to test and refit Nantucket’s gift for use on the Martha’s Vineyard by spring.
“Carl Walker, SSA’s director of engineering and maintenance in Woods Hole, has the task of getting it running and installed so folks can hear it next spring,” he said.