The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Tells Origin of Whistle On Lake Steamers
Oswego Palladium-Times (Oswego, NY), 15 Aug 1928

Full Text
Tells Origin of Whistle On Lake Steamers
In Early Days Alarm Bells Were in Use on Boats

"The steamboat whistle was unknown on the Great Lakes as late as the year 1843, and up to that time lake sailors used alarm bells placed high above the walking beam of the engine for signaling purposes," said Capt. Lee C. DeNike, master of the steamer Greater Buffalo, of the Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company. "The earliest steamboats on the lakes were equipped with a cannon which was fired when nearing port, and also discharged half an hour before leaving time.

"The story of the development of the steam whistle as handed down by the old-timers on the lakes," has it that Chief Engineer William McGee of the steamboat Rochester devised the first whistle operated by steam from a sketch he saw in an English magazine," said DeNike. "The whistle constructed by McGee is said to have given forth a most ear-piercing screech that startled the natives on the shore, and was employed on the Rochester more for amusement that practical use.

On the first trip when the Rochester was steaming northward on Lake Huron, it is related, she overhauled the propeller General Porter, with Captain Gager in command. McGee, it is said, had a grudge against Captain Gager, so to annoy his enemy he opened up the whistle and continued the terrible until the Porter was out of hearing.

The Rochester was still at Mackinac Island when the Porter came into port, and Captain Gager hurried over to the dock of the Rochester and demanded to see the man who had so insultingly "squawked" at him. McGee was willing enough to continue the argument, but friends intervened and the matter was settled without blows.

"The whistle in a short time replaced the bell and was soon in common use, not only on the lakes but on the land."

Media Type:
Item Type:
Date of Publication:
15 Aug 1928
Personal Name(s):
DeNike, Lee C. ; McGee, William ; Gager, Capt.
Corporate Name(s):
Detroit & Cleveland Navigation Company
Richard Palmer
Language of Item:
Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 45.7555683529155 Longitude: -84.2289925
Creative Commons licence:
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Tells Origin of Whistle On Lake Steamers