Steam whistle once used as signal on campus restored by interns

Showing off the restored steam whistle are (from left) Jonathan Ledford, Riley Seyffert and Jeremy Smith.

A steam whistle that had collected dust at Western Carolina University’s steam plant is now back in working order, thanks to a summer internship team with the WCU Rapid Center.

The whistle once sounded at WCU’s predecessor, Cullowhee State Normal School, which included the steam plant operations and a full-scale farming operation. That’s not to say a bellowing shrill will be heard again throughout Cullowhee Valley every weekday.

“It could be used at Homecoming and other special events,” said Riley Seyffert, a first-year graduate student in technology who worked on the restoration project “That would be neat to see. The way we have it mounted in the cabinetry, including a compressor, makes it completely portable. It’s a real showpiece.”

The Rapid Center, a part of the WCU College of Engineering and Technology and now in its 15th year, is a research and development facility that partners with businesses, industry and entrepreneurs to develop new products and processes, with high-tech engineering labs and equipment.

“As interns, we were able to go through the restoration process the same as a professional would with a similar project,” said Jeremy Smith, also a first-year graduate student in technology. “So the hands-on aspect was just a part of the project, which included client expectations, deadlines and cataloging.”

A Blackwood Lumber Co. locomotive at East LaPorte. Photo courtesy of Hunter Library Special Collections.

Exact origins of the whistle are cloudy, although both the interns and their professors are doing some detective work on it and comparing archival photos. The whistle is thought to have been taken from an old locomotive, possibly a steam engine used by one of the logging operations in the area in the early 20th century. Photos and a general timeframe indicate it might be from a Shay engine owned by Ritter Lumber Co. and damaged in a wreck on Hazel Creek in the Great Smokies at the turn of the century, but oral tradition suggests it was from a Blackwood Lumber Co.-owned Climax engine operating out of East LaPorte in the pre-World War II era.

“We had to take it apart, clean it up and clear out a lot of debris,” said Jonathan Ledford, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. “Then, we set about making calculations for the amount of pressure it would take to operate, substituting compressed air for steam.”

When it was used on campus, steam diverted from the steam plant would blow the whistle, the power source being an easy substitute for a steam-powered locomotive. It would alert the campus ― and nearby community ― to the start and end of a work day, mid-day lunch break and, with a long continuous blast, special events or warnings.

“Each year, I look for real-world, hands-on projects for my summer interns,” said Patrick Gardner, director of the Rapid Center. “I discovered this inoperative steam whistle on display at Lees at the Depot (a local restaurant) in Dillsboro. Lees owner Gary Long and I have been transporting it between there and campus, so that it’s in Dillsboro when a train comes into town.

“The whistle is now fully operative on compressed air,” Gardner said. “It will be a great historic piece for our whole community to enjoy.”

The Rapid Center is located at 387 Centennial Drive, Cullowhee. For more information, call 828-227-2560, email rapidcenter@wcu.edu or visit this webpage.