All steamed up

Mount Oread’s loudest icon stands the test of time

Steam Whistle all steamed up

To understand how serious the budget crunch is at the University right now, forget hiring freezes and fee hikes and consider instead how cost-cutting has affected that most blue-collar of campus icons: the steam whistle.

Faced with skyrocketing prices for utilities (especially for the natural gas that powers the boilers that produce the steam that heats the campus and blows the whistle), the University last fall tightened its belt a notch. Thermostats were lowered in classrooms. Space heaters were banned from offices. Over winter break, the lights in the new parking garage were dimmed. And the whistle—that workaday old timekeeper that blasts 7,900 pounds of steam, the equivalent of nearly a hundred gallons of water, every time it bellows—was deemed wasteful and silenced.

No easy feat, that. “Old Faithful,” as it was nicknamed early on, has been a stalwart since 1899, when it first announced an 8 p.m. student curfew. (Not until 1912 did it begin marking the end of classes, much to the chagrin of long-winded professors who no doubt felt affronted by Chancellor Frank Strong’s dictum: “If the instructor isn’t through when the whistle blows, get up and go.”)

Mechanically, it has been a rock. The first notable layoff for repairs didn’t come until 1932, an impressive record considering the clarion worked six days a week until 1981, when a petition was raised to give it—and sleepy students—Saturdays off. By 1929 the whistle was automated, and in 1941 its regulating mechanism was lauded by The Jayhawker as “one of the University’s most delicate, complicated and relatively expensive pieces of equipment.”

There have been days when the whistle blew, literally: A buildup of steam caused “Tooty Toot” (as it has been more recently nicknamed) to pop its top in the 1940s and again in 1985. But aside from September 1999, when it shut down for two weeks, the whistle has proved remarkably reliable. (That hiatus, facilities and operations Assistant Director George Cone said at the time, was for a “whistle upgrade” to improve the operating system to 21st-century standards: Tooty Toot 2.0.)

It has also proved remarkably resistant to change. In 1944 Capt. Robert A. Haggart, ’24, donated a whistle salvaged from a sunken German transport ship. But the new clarion had a dishonorable discharge: The sound was deemed unsatisfactory and the German import soon got the boot. After the war, as planners dreamed of the Campanile, rumors swirled that the bells marked the death knell for “Old Faithful.”

The most dramatic example of the icon’s resilience came in January 1977, when KU launched a grand experiment to see whether it could resist the whistle’s siren song. Professors who held classes longer than 50 minutes had long complained, as had workers in nearby offices and startled pedestrians wandering by at the moment of eruption. When students returned to campus for spring semester, the whistle stayed on break. But absence makes the heart grow fonder, and when the Student Senate polled students, 81 percent cried, “Let the whistle sing.”

This spring, now that natural gas cutbacks have eased, the summoner is back. Times have changed from the days when a perforated drum regulated by steel pegs and spring-loaded levers was considered the ultimate in campus technology. Then, University engineers estimated it cost 18 cents every time KU blew its horn. No doubt it costs much more today. But in an era in which time is money and image is everything, it’s a smart investment at any price.

Originally published in Kansas Alumni magazine, 2001.