Thomas J. Nichol Calliope Aboard Steamboat Delta Queen
text by Travis Vasconcelos
photos by Don Elbers and Robbie Rhodes

DQnight1.jpg (18 kb)

For several years MMDer Don Elbers has maintained the calliope aboard the steamboat Delta Queen, owned and operated by the Delta Queen Steamboat Company of New Orleans, Louisiana.  Last winter all piping, valves, traps, conduits, wiring and lighting were replaced and he installed a new, redesigned manifold to supply steam to the whistle valves.  A new centrifugal moisture separator was added to remove condensate.  The whistles and keyboard console remain the same; the work was completed in January 2001.  The calliope is one of three identical calliopes known as the "Three Sisters".

Historian Travis Vasconcelos of Louisville, Kentucky, writes about Nichol and the DQ calliope:

    Of all the historic steam calliopes still existing in playable condition, all are Thomas J. Nichol originals -- an understandable fact when you consider that Mr. Nichol built 90% of all the steam calliopes heard on Americas waterways!

    Thomas J. Nichol built calliopes from 1890 until 1932.  Previously he worked for the Van Duzen foundry in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he made castings for steamboat whistles and church bells.  The company still exists.  When Mr. Nichol left the company he set out on his own pursuit of building calliopes.  He changed the instrument slightly, making the whistle bells (the resonant column) out of rolled copper, like used on a copper roof.  He found that copper made a "sweeter" sound.  I think this is directly related to the church bells he made at the foundry, as copper is mixed heavily into the casting alloy for tonal quality.

    The Str. Delta Queen calliope was built in 1923 for the Showboat Water Queen.  It was one of three built at the same time and all three were the first 32-note instruments built by Thomas J. Nichol, in Cincinnati, OH.  The other two went to the Majestic Showboat, and the Excursion Steamer Idlewild.

    Showboat Water Queen sank at it's winter moorings, in the mouth of the Kanawa River in West Virginia, in 1939.  It's calliopist, "Crazy" Ray Choisser, rescued the calliope from the river bottom and played it for the King Bros. circus until his death.  It then found home with "Slim" Sommers, a retired circus calliopist, who relinquished his prize (whistles only; he kept the rest of it, why, no one knows) to Comdr.. E. J. Quinby, stockholder in the Greene Line, the former owner/operator of the Str. Delta Queen.  Quinby had played the calliope on the Showboat Lulu Belle in the early part of the century and felt that his investment in the Greene Line warranted inclusion of a calliope on the boat.

    Ownership of the Greene Line was not receptive of the idea, initially.  They thought that the calliope would relegate the stately Str. Delta Queen to the image of a lower-class excursion boat.  Thankfully, Quinby won out and in 1958 his purchase was mounted on the roof of the boat, where it's melodies regularly call all to the river to experience the majesty of the Str. Delta Queen!

Delta Queen Steamboat Co. operates three paddlewheel steamboats in excursion service out of New Orleans: the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and American Queen.  They also operate the paddlewheeler Columbia Queen  in the Pacific Northwest.  The parent company is American Classic Voyages Co. with about 1800 employees and which recently relocated to Sunrise, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale.
 
 

DQwhistles.jpg (21 kb)
Delta Queen calliope whistles made by Thomas J. Nichol.

 
DQday.jpg (17 kb)
Delta Queen calliope during daytime.  That's Robbie Rhodes on the  
left enjoying the rain of condensate while DQ Capt. Gabe Chengary 
plays the calliope console and Don Elbers watches on the right.       

 
DQmanifold.jpg (71 kb)
The new insulated steam manifold and wiring conduits.

 
DQjbox.jpg (96 kb)
New junction box for the wires from the console to the electric valves beneath each whistle.


23 July 2001