‘Its voice is its whistle’

The Steamship Authority echoes voices of past ferries.


Updated Sept. 26

When Steamship Authority (SSA) steamboats leave port on Martha’s Vineyard, the sound of the whistle echoes across the harbor with the voices of past ferries.

“The only way you could tell what boat was arriving was by its voice,” said Bob Cleasby, former president of the Steamship Historical Society of America. “Its voice is its whistle.”

For the past 12 to 15 years, the SSA has made a tradition of installing antique whistles on five out of their 10 passenger ferries, according to SSA communications director Sean Driscoll.

“People have much nostalgia for the whistles,” Driscoll told The Times. “They look forward to them, and when it sounds off it means they know where they’re headed.”

There are five ferries with antique whistles: M/V Martha’s Vineyard, M/V Nantucket, M/V Island Home, M/V Woods Hole, and M/V Eagle. The M/V Martha’s Vineyard uses the Sankaty whistle — an old vessel part of the SSA fleet. The M/V Nantucket uses the Brinkerhoff whistle — a sidewheel ferry built in 1899 to serve the Hudson River. The M/V Island Home uses an antique whistle acquired from eBay — the SSA was unable to identify its origin. The M/V Woods Hole came online in 2016 and had the SS Pennsylvania whistle installed. And lastly, the M/V Eagle sounds the Nobska’s whistle — another old vessel from the Steamship’s fleet. 

“They designed the whistles to be distinct, and here in Oak Bluffs, all of the steamers docked at the Steamship Authority dock,” Cleasby said. “You had boats from Boston, Maine, New Bedford, Woods Hole, Providence, and even New York.”

In 2006, the SSA scrapped the M/V Nobska, but the whistle was picked up by the late Flint Ranney, the Nantucket representative for the SSA. According to Driscoll, Ranney came up with the idea of fitting the Nobska’s whistle onto the M/V Eagle, wanting to keep the Nobska’s voice preserved for the locals and passengers who grew up with its tone — and to share its voice with a new generation.

Compressed air blows through the antique whistle with air tanks fastened behind the steamboat’s pilothouse. The captain pulls cord to sound the whistle right when the ferry leaves the dock. According to Cleasby, the ships’ whistles are rare because each ship’s voice had to be unique and indistinguishable from another vessel’s whistles.

“The Brinkerhoff is the highest-pitched whistle, and the Woods Hole whistle is the deepest,” William H. Ewen Jr. said. Ewen is a steamship historian who loaned the Brinkerhoff whistle to the Nantucket ferry. “The larger they are, the deeper the whistle is.”

Nantucket locals loved hearing the Nobska’s whistle on the Eagle, and when Ewen heard about the success of the antique whistle, he wrote a letter to the SSA requesting Martha’s Vineyard ferries also get fitted with antique whistles. The message was passed to Carl Walker, the head of engineering and maintenance for the SSA, who wrote back to Ewen saying he loved the idea.

Ewen reached out to his friend Bill Muller who contacted another friend in New York, Conrad Milster, asking if they could borrow a whistle from his collection. Milster worked as an engineer on the Hudson River for steamboats; he is currently the chief engineer at Pratt Institute. One of Milster’s hobbies was collecting antique steamboat whistles — he had amassed an extensive collection.

Ewen convinced Milster to loan a three-tone chime whistle from the Charles Dunning, which was the original Sankaty that caught fire in 1924. Sankaty was renamed the Charles Dunning after serving in World War II as a minelayer. According to Ewen, the whistle was a three-chime tone that was unique to the Charles Dunning, but the original whistle on the first Sankaty had a single tone.

During an interview with The Times, Bow Van Riper detailed the first Sankaty built in 1911. Sankaty was the second ship to use a steel hull as part of its design, and was three decks high on an even line from stern to bow — unlike the ‘wedding cake design’ of the older paddle steamboats. In 1923, the steam company that ran the first Sankaty decided to overhaul their ferry fleet from the single paddle wheel to fit the modern design of Sankaty’s sharp bow that ripped through the waves with propulsion coming from a single screw propeller. 

The new look of Sankaty was so successful that it led to the creation of the ‘Great White Fleet’ — made up of the Islander (renamed the Martha’s Vineyard) built in 1923, Nobska built in 1925, the New Bedford in 1928, and the Naushon in 1929. The Martha’s Vineyard was repowered with diesel engines around 1960 after being sold by the SSA.

The whistles for the steamboats were made by Lunkenheimer Valve Company based out of Cincinnati, Ohio, which also manufactured machine parts for steam and gas engines. The SSA plans to install more antique steam whistles on each new passenger ferry as a low-cost way of preserving the history of steam power in America.

*Updated to clarify details of the Great White Fleet.


  1. “The Nobska was the only ferry to receive an upgrade with its engine moving from steam to diesel power in the 1950s.” – Correction for you: the Nobska was remodeled in 1950 but always was steam powered. Her sister ship, the Martha’s Vineyard (built 1923), was repowered with diesel engines around 1960, but only after being sold by the SSA. Martha’s Vineyard Magazine has more info: http://mvmagazine.com/news/2010/08/01/final-chapter-islander-and-other-bygone-ferries

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