This article is dedicated to my mother, who loves trains as much as I do. After Mom and I returned from a recent family reunion in the magical rural Ohio town where my father was raised, she suggested that I write about the haunting sounds trains make in the middle of the night. She was thinking about the steam whistles and diesel horns that pierced the night air during the 1940s and 50s as passenger and freight trains neared the crossing in this tiny town. Today, freight trains still fly by this place in the middle of the night, blasting their lonesome horns. This one’s for you, Mom, with love.
Few sounds capture the American imagination as compellingly as the wail of a moving steam locomotive’s whistle. Its haunting sound speaks of industrial progress, the adventure of homesteading in the prairies, the thrill of discovering gold in the West, and, for many, the loneliness of ending one chapter of life and beginning another. By the mid-1950s, steam trains no longer dominated America’s commercial and passenger lines, an ending that adds an extra touch of melancholy to the lonesome whistle.
Steam Train Whistle Sounds
Maintained by the San Bernardino Railroad Historical Society, the Santa Fe 3751 steam locomotive passes through San Diego, blasting its whistle in the long-long-short-long signal for approaching the crossing.
Enjoy this sampling of steam train whistles at the Texas State Fair.
The steam whistle plays prominently in this 1949 lament of a broken heart. Listen for the amazing autoharp break that mimics the steam whistle’s wail.
Here’s another lament by Hank Williams, but now listen to his voice mimicking this mournful sound.
Here’s one last steam whistle sound, courtesy of the Steam Train Whistle Man himself, Ellwood Haynam.
Diesel Train Air Horn Sounds
My love affair with trains began in the 1950s, traveling between Ohio and New Jersey, visiting family members. Before I was 12 years old I had taken my first solo, over-night train ride from Newark, New Jersey to Columbus, Ohio. Steam trains were out of service by then, so my whistle romance began with the diesel air horn. Although you can hear the horn from within the train as you travel, the best way to appreciate its lonesome sound is to stand near a railroad crossing and listen to the horn as the train approaches and then recedes.
Enjoy the sounds of 28 different diesel engines approaching railroad crossings in this somewhat lengthy video. By the time you are through watching and listening, you will either have a headache or click replay as I do.
Here’s an amazing close-up look at a seven-chime diesel air horn followed by its distinctive sound. Notice the short sequence of blasts that follow the crossing blasts...I wonder if the engineer played those sweet tunes for the photographer?
Diesel train air horns aren’t just for trains, by the way.
Train Bell Sounds
No doubt all of us have heard the railroad crossing bells that sound as a train approaches. They are as much a part of the mystique of railroad sounds as the moans of whistles and horns and the thunder of rolling wheels, but trains carry their own bells as well, which are used as additional signaling devices. Primarily, the constant clanging of the train’s bell indicates that the train is in motion in a public area, such as a station platform, or in a work area, such as a train yard. Having already listened to the many whistle and horn sounds in this article, I’m sure you can appreciate why the less invasive bell sound would be welcome in a public area where it is obvious a train is nearby and slowly on the move.
Here are 24 seconds of a steam train's bell clanging at the Canadian Railway Museum.
Things That Go Bump in the Night
During our recent family reunion, my daughter, mother, and I awakened frequently during the night because of the diesel horns and thundering wheels that passed over the grade crossing only 200 yards away or so from Aunt Katie's house. If we could have stayed longer, the three of us, like Aunt Katie, would have remained asleep, weaving these forlorn sounds into our dreams. Maybe next time.
If You Would Like To Know More About American Trains, Whistles, Horns, and Bells
- The US Federal Rail Administration dictates rules about how train whistles and horns are to be used to announce the train’s approach to a grade crossing.
- Check out the book Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow: The Epic Story of the Transcontinental Railroads by Dee Brown to learn more about American trains and whistles.
© 2011 Sherri