The enduring exhalations of The Whistle

The Whistle

Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

The first thing that’s surprising to learn about The Whistle* is that it is not automated. When you hear it sound everyday at 8, noon, 1, and 5, there’s an actual human being in the power plant’s control room pushing a little red button that opens a valve and diverts a puff of steam to The Whistle on the roof.

* That is its official name, The Whistle, although technically it is a Lunkenheimer 6”—3 Bell Chime, and while an identification tag wrapped around the 150-pound bell calls it “The Historic Whistle,” everyone just calls it The Whistle.

Also surprising is that it’s no big deal among those who work in the power plant to push the button that sets off a sound heard across half of Johnson County. Nobody argues over who gets to do it, they don’t draw straws or lots with the winner getting to push the button. They don’t work it into their employment agreements. It is not a part of their annual employment review, how well or accurately they sounded The Whistle. It is not a part of anyone’s job description, except maybe under “other duties as assigned.” The procedure used to determine who gets to sound The Whistle is disappointingly pedestrian—whoever happens to be in the control room at the appointed time pushes the button.

The Whistle is one of the University of Iowa’s longest-lived and loudest traditions, a holdover from the days when many towns sounded whistles to signal the start and end of the workday and lunch break. While most municipal whistles have long since gone silent, the UI Whistle has become a part of Iowa Citiana.

Beginnings lost in the steam fog of history

Exactly how long the University has operated a whistle is something of a mystery. Some sources say a whistle was installed when the power plant opened in 1925, while another source says 1932. There may also have been competing whistles, as an old locomotive whistle donated by the Rock Island Railroad was installed on the roof of the old Engineering Building in 1939,* replacing a whistle that had evidently been there for some time.

* This whistle’s first use was to fire up the crowd at a pep rally before the now legendary Iowa–Notre Dame football game that season, when Nile Kinnick scored the lone touchdown in the Hawkeye’s 7–6 upset win over the Irish.

Workers sounded The Whistle by pulling a chain until 1947, when a shiny new valve was installed that allowed its activation with the push of a button.

The Whistle itself is actually three whistles that sit atop three pipes rising from the roof, each sounding a different frequency when steam blows through at 150 psi. Ben Fish, the power plant manager, said steam is diverted from the main pipe that sends heat to the rest of the campus and shoots up five stories to the array. Once the process has started, it takes 20 seconds for the sound to reach its full orchestration, which lasts for another 20 seconds* and creates a 20-foot high plume of steam. It takes another 20 seconds for it to cough itself quiet.

* Although it can sound for more than 20 seconds, if the button is depressed longer. Fish says that he can occasionally tell who is activating The Whistle by how long it sounds. “Some of the people like a long whistle, some like it short,” he says.

The sound can be heard easily across campus, through much of Iowa City and Coralville, and into the surrounding rural areas, although its distance is limited to the west because the sound is partially blocked by the hill climbing from the west bank of the Iowa River. When the weather is dry and better conducts sound waves, it can be heard from even farther.

Don’t set your watch to it

Although power plant workers try to keep The Whistle synchronized with the Navy’s Atomic Clock and sound it as close as possible to the top of the hour, they will occasionally miss by a few seconds if occupied by other tasks. Sometimes, when they’re particularly busy, they will miss entirely, as an unwritten rule of The Whistle is that if they’re more than 30 seconds late, they skip it.

There was once greater urgency to sound The Whistle consistently. In a Daily Iowan story in 1993, then plant manager Ferman Milster explained that he wanted to keep The Whistle manually operated because a properly sounded whistle “was a sign that people are paying attention to their jobs and to the plant.”

Jim Miller, a power plant engineer, remembers when people scurried down ladders and causeways to make sure they pushed the button at the top of the appointed hour.

“Now, production of steam is our priority,” he says.

It’s always a lot of fun until someone loses their hearing

Although nobody has ever measured The Whistle’s decibel levels, it’s loud enough to turn your ears into pudding if you stand too close. “Even if I’m just walking by on the sidewalk I have to cover my ears,” Fish says. Presumably, steam burns also could be a problem if you REALLY get too close.

The Whistle has been used to signal more than just the workday and lunch breaks during its years of service. Workers blew it twice at midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, to signal the start of the new millennium, and it was once part of the civil defense alert network that warned people of tornados and Soviet nuclear attack. The Whistle has also been used to announce good news coming from Kinnick Stadium.

“When my dad worked here they’d sound it when the Hawkeyes scored a touchdown,” says Brook Rogers, a power plant engineer whose father, Leonard, worked at the plant in the 1960s. “But that wasn’t very often back then.”

Even a whistle needs a break

By unwritten rule,* The Whistle is given to rest on Sundays and holidays. There have been extended periods when The Whistle has gone quiet for routine maintenance, and most notably for the 137 days the power plant was offline during the flood of 2008.

* You may have noticed The Whistle is governed by numerous unwritten rules. “We have lots of written procedures in the power plant, but nothing for The Whistle,” says Fish.

No love for The Whistle

The University has received occasional complaints about The Whistle, especially when it was blown at midnight on New Year’s Eve at various points in history, bringing that practice to an end every time it’s been attempted. Former president Sandy Boyd also remembers The Whistle going quiet in 1970, after a group of Reinow Hall residents petitioned the power plant manager to turn it off under threat of legal action.

“The decision was made—not by me, and unknown to me—to stop the whistle because it annoyed someone,” says Boyd, who has been listening to The Whistle since arriving at UI as a law professor in 1954. The subsequent public response was so enormously pro-Whistle that he directed soundings to resume after it had been quiet for three days.

A group of faculty also succeeded in having it turned off in the 1980s in their quest for a quieter campus, but public demand brought it back again.

The Whistle is available for weddings, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs

Guests are allowed to sound The Whistle for special occasions. President Sally Mason pushed the button to commemorate the power plant coming back online after the flood. Graduating students have occasionally been allowed to sound The Whistle. And last July, Donilee Popham sounded The Whistle as her last official act as a UI employee.

“I grew up in Iowa City and have always lived in Iowa City or Coralville, so The Whistle has been there as a part of my life, in the background, for as long as I can remember,” says Popham, who retired two weeks shy of 23 years as a library assistant in the Curriculum Lab in the College of Education. “It’s so Iowa City to me and the few times we didn’t have it, I missed it.”

She let the blast continue just a little longer than normal, she said, in honor of the other retirees from the College of Education.

“I thought it was a perfect way to retire and I’m so glad I did it,” she said.

Popham and her co-workers hugged and cried as The Whistle went quiet. “We’re not used to that much emotion in the control room,” says Fish.