The Calliope

Apr 2, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Before you pick up the phone and call in, trust me on this one. No steamboat on the Upper Mississippi River ever had a calliope. On the river, it was always pronounced cally-ope. Steamboat men had minds of their own, and seldom took direction from people on land.

The cally-ope, or steam piano, was to the steamboat what the carillon is to a church. It announced the arrival of services; its music put worshippers in the mood and accompanied them as they departed. The cally-ope, too, gave fifteen-minute concerts twice a day, its tunes still echoing years later in people's imaginations.

Like all good sounds, natural and human—a tractor cultivating, a waterfall, a train whistle at three in the morning, your child singing in the third grade Thanksgiving program—the cally-ope's sound was haunting, its throaty double tone a mixture of beautiful and sad, comfort and loss.

As Mark Twain knew, the sound of the cally-ope arriving several blocks away turned whole towns back to children—a pied piper enticing everyone on board to see the show, to take in the excursion. "Come dance and laugh," the cally-ope sang, until well into the 1930s, enticing passengers on board one of the Streckfus Line excursion boats to listen to that new Dixieland music from New Orleans. The cally-ope was the barker for Louis Armstrong, Wayne King, Roy Bargy, and other jazz immortals whose careers began on Streckfus boats.

On the Mississippi today, only four or five cally-opes still announce the arrival and departure of boats.  The hundreds of others sit silent in museums, transformed into calliopes. A very few toot tunes ashore in parade floats.

No matter. Once heard, the cally-ope is a sound that won't go away. Often, while half-awake in the middle of the night, or even at times during an impromptu lull at a crowded cocktail party, I hear the distant notes of the cally-ope and know that it's high time to leave and get down to the levee.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.