Whistling around the world

Robert Swanson's AirChime beginnings in Nanaimo, BC

Authored by: Darrell Ohs, 2007

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Swanson created the world's first five-chime horn. After he patented his invention in 1949, demand for multi-chin horns launched the whistle business he called AirChime from Nanaimo's backwoods to international prominence.
Photo - Brian Kent / Railway Appliance Research Collection / Nanaimo District Museum

A tree lined gravel logging spur road ends in a small clearing at the bottom of the Nanaimo River valley. It's a remote and quiet spot in the wilderness where the calm is broken only by the occasional bird.

Ironically, the quiet of this isolated spot is what drew industrial engineer and inventor Robert Eugene Swanson, in 1949, to build what became known as a whistle farm - a site for designing and testing signalling devices, mostly air horns and whistles for locomotives and ships.

It was an ideal location, not just for its remoteness but because the steep mountainside flanking this valley created a natural amphitheatre for tuning and calibrating Swanson's designs. Today the skeletal remains of the rustic research and development facility still stand, despite forays of looters and vandals since it was abandoned in the '80s.

Swanson constructed walls and a roof onto the log sleigh of an old wood-fired steam donkey, discarding the winching gear and cables. then added diesel compressors and electric generators.

Still evident are some of the couplings, connections, hoses and wiring of the complex mechanical systems that harnessed and monitored the steam, pneumatic and electrical power, all independently generated on site.

Robert Swanson - who added "Eugene" to his name - was born in 1905 in England, but moved with his family to a ranch in East Wellington near Nanaimo, two years later. As soon as he could walk, young Swanson was reportedly mesmerized by the steam locomotive that ran past the family home. When he was 12, he got his first job cleaning and repairing boilers at the Jingle Pot coal mines during the summer holidays.

In his teens. he operated and repaired steam donkeys in the woods and steam powered sawmill boilers. It was while working at a sawmill, as a fourth class steam engineer in 1926, that he got his first opportunity to ro build a steam whistle for a sawmill near Nanaimo Lakes.

During the rest of the 30's, Swanson bounced around logging camps and sawmills to build up enough steam time to upgrade his steam ticket to first class.

By the end of the, decade he was chief engineer at the new Chemainus Sawmill. Noted then as a state-of-the-art operation with the capacity and technology to cut huge first-growth timber.

It was at the Chemainus mill that Swanson designed and built the largest steam whistle in Canada. On May 10, 1940, this giant whistle blew the first of decades of starting and stopping signals, only silenced when the aging mill closed in 1983.

The Cypress Street mural in Chemainus, called "Waiting for the Whistle," depicts Swanson dwarfed by his new brass invention. Above is a picture of this whistle, which weighed more than a ton, being erected on the boiler house roof.

Today, that whistle is displayed in the Chemainus museum.

While employed at the Chemainus mill, Swanson studied engineering, earning his degree from the University of B.C. in 1942. The mature student, with years of hands-on experience behind him, lectured to other engineering students at the university. These lectures were mainly on the advantages of diesel power over steam, though his subsequent writings and logging poetry show he was fonder of the fading era of steam trains and whistles.

Postwar modernization ushered in diesel power, sending steam, the workhorse of the Industrial Revolution, out to pasture. For many, what was gained in power and efficiency was lost in soul and romance. Certainly the sound of the lonesome steam whistle in the night was grist for the song-writing mills of bluegrass and country musicians.

When diesel locomotives started rolling in the late '40s, the steam whistle fell silent. The new diesels had single chime air horns that blatted their signals. The sound wasn't well received by the public - Swanson said it sounded like a sick moose. Real moose thought so, too, as reportedly many bull moose died up north after challenging oncoming CNR trains. In a crossing accident on Vancouver Island, one logging truck driver that was hit said he mistook the train horn for another logging truck.

Swanson took on the challenge recreating the steam whistle sound from a compressed air-driven horn. He first deciphered the five notes - a musical chord, actually - of the steam whistle. Toiling with steam boilers and diesel compressors pipes, valves, meters, and gauges, the Whistle Farm hatched the H5, the world's first five-chime horn.

Swanson patented his invention in 1949, and the demand for multi-chime locomotive air-horns launched the horn and whistle business he called AirChime from Nanaimo's backwoods to international prominence.

AirChime became, and still is, the dominant name in railroad air horns in North America. On the sea, the Canadian, British and U.S. navies and coast guards agents acoustically signal with Swanson's AirChime horns.

At our ferry terminals, almost the entire B.C. Ferry fleet voices its arrivals and departures with AirChime horns. Swanson and his whistle farm are legendary to Ken Kanne, who repairs and restores locomotive air horns and whistles from his shop near Silver Hills, Ala.

"Swanson was a really brilliant guy for putting together notes that sounded very, very melodious - but strident so that they also sounded like a warning," says Kanne, who edits a magazine for the Horn and Whistle Enthusiasts Group, which is dedicated to the preservation of the mechanical voices of the Industrial Revolution. "I wish I had the opportunity to meet him."

Mechanical engineer Deane H. Ellsworth of Palm Harbour, Ha., did get to meet Swanson, after taking charge of Amtrak's locomotive development in 1975. In 1986, Ellsworth met Swanson, who produced two air horns for Amtrak, for the last time in Vancouver, after making a special trip from Seattle with his wife Amy.

"He gave me several recording of his speeches, numerous documents on horns and steam whistles, and a precious book of his poems. I held him in great esteem. I still do."

According to Kanne, member of the Horn and Whistle group are invariably moved by the sentiment the old sounds evoke. They collect and restore the mechanical devices to preserve the "art and music" of our sonic heritage.

Basically romantics, members of the group invariably "want to find the horn - or whistle - they heard while growing up," Kanne says. Closer to home, for many Vancouver Islanders the near cessation of freight train horns on the E & N line marks the loss of a "soundmark" that they've grown more fond of in its absence.

Few people can remember when the first three notes of 0 Canada haven't echoed across downtown Vancouver and Burrard Inlet every day at noon from 10 giant rooftop horns at Canada Place.

The patriotic blast from the horns, usually followed by the complaints of startled seagulls, has been a soundmark since 1967, when they were first mounted atop the old B.C. Hydro building. Swanson abandoned the Whistle Farm to vandals in the mid-'80s, though he worked at AirChime in Bumaby until he died in 1994, at age 89. He left behind an aural legacy heard every day around the world. Amazingly, these notes were heard here first.

Download and listen to sounds raised on the Whistle Farm:
Canadian and American diesel horns: trainhorns.neVairchime/k.htmI
*O Canada horns: www.sfu.ca~sonic-studiohandbook/Sound/O-Canada-Horn.aiff

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