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The Lonesome Steam Whistle and Other Haunting American Train Sounds

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Steam Engine in Old Sacramento, California.

Steam Engine in Old Sacramento, California.

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.

Union Pacific diesel engine at Santa Clara, California.

Union Pacific diesel engine at Santa Clara, California.

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.

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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.

Engine Number and bell from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

Engine Number and bell from the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway.

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.
  • From Trains Magazine, you can learn what the different train horn blast signals mean. Although not as complex as Morse code, this simple signal system carries a great deal of information and is still often used in conjunction with modern wireless communications.
  • Spend a little time with Ed Kaspriske on his DieselAirHorns site. He’s an avid air horn collector with many fascinating stories to tell about how he got into the air horn restoration business.
  • Read the history of the Port Aransas steam train bell and the story of the steam train that helped build Mustang Island’s south jetty in the early 1900s (scroll down to “Ring it, Now!”).
  • For a concise but informative overview of the history of railroad travel around the world, enjoy MKayo's History of Railroad Travel.

Learn More About American Trains and Whistles with These Great Reads

Let Us Know What You Think

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© 2011 Sally's Trove. All rights reserved.


Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on May 11, 2017:

I LOVED IT!! I'm a train buff from back in my childhood days. Not because they are a real travel memory for me; I've never gone on a 'real' train trip; only on historical excursion lines that run back and forth or in a loop between 3 and 40 miles.

When I was a child, my dad introduced me to train museums, and we also rode the historic "Skunk" train that runs between the towns of Willits and Fort Bragg. It's an 8-hour round trip. I later went again with my kids, and my younger daughter and I spent nearly the entire trip standing in the outdoor observation car, snapping photos.

We lived just a few blocks from some train yards, and train horns were a fairly common sound--you got so accustomed that you didn't really hear them in the daytime.

Now, we live about a mile from the tracks, in a different part of CA...just across the bay from where I grew up in San Francisco. Again, I don't really notice daytime trains, but at night, oh, yes, at night. If I'm still awake, there are the freighters: a midnight train, and others at 1a.m.; 2a.m.; and 3a.m.

Some of the engineers like to lean on the horn so long, you start to think it's the continuous, "runaway train" blast!

Loved all the videos. And on the longer one; no, I did not get a headache; I enjoyed it. but I did not replay it either: the cats did not approve. LOL

( did I fail to notice or remember that I've read and commented on this article once before...oh, it a senior moment.)

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on June 22, 2015:

Sally, this was a beautiful and lovely tribute to your mom on steam whistles and other sounds from trains. Voted up for beautiful!

joey on October 08, 2013:

Cool, but that's not an autoharp, it's the steel guitar.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on October 12, 2012:

Me, too! So glad you enjoyed this, eugbug. :)

Eugene Brennan from Ireland on October 12, 2012:

I enjoyed this hub! I love trains also and could drool over this stuff and anything to do with machines all day!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on July 30, 2012:

I'm so glad you enjoyed this hub, Ruby. Even today, after nearly a year has passed since I published it, I like to start the videos and turn the volume way up. Lullaby feeling, I like that. It's all kind of magical. :)

Maree Michael Martin from Northwest Washington on an Island on July 29, 2012:

Yes, I too love the sounds of trains, and the lullaby feeling. Awesome hub about them. Love all the train sounds, whistles, clacks, stopping, starting. Wonderful.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on October 10, 2011:

Thank you, Eiddwen!

Eiddwen from Wales on October 10, 2011:

Very interesting indeed.

Take care and thanks for sharing.


Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on October 09, 2011:

Peg, your comment brought back many memories.

My father's second wife lived in a house in Indiana, in the middle of a flat field, that was only a few hundred yards off a major highway. I remember staying there, as a young girl, lulling myself to sleep with the distant sounds of big rigs barreling down the road.

I've always loved counting train cars (what else is there to do when waiting for the train to go by at a crossing in the Midwest?). But these days, there doesn't seem to be a caboose. What happened to that guy?

Thanks so much for sharing your memories and for all your good words. I loved putting this Hub together and knowing that it touched others in wonderful ways.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on October 09, 2011:

What a winner this one is. You've touched the memories of so many of us who grew up with these sounds as much a part of our lives as diesel fumes from buses and shipyards. When we moved as a family, which we did a lot, we often would pull off the road so my Dad could catch a few winks. I remember the sounds of cars as they would make their way along the highway in the night. We would count the cars of the trains as they passed and wave at the engineer and the caboose guy too.

Thanks for the great clips and the nostalgic trip to my childhood. I love Hank Williams Sr. and these songs.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on October 02, 2011:

snakeslane, I had to laugh out loud when I read your I was putting this Hub together, I just had to stop, over and over again, to listen to the clips. It was a beautiful day outside, so I had all the windows and doors open and the train sounds cranked up as far as they'd go. My neighbors suspect I'm a little strange already, now they know for sure!

Lucky you to have big water nearby. I love the sound of a diesel horn over water, too. Those horns just speak so much of adventure.

I am so glad you enjoyed this.

Verlie Burroughs from Canada on October 01, 2011:

I love this Hub! Thank you so much Sally's Trove, from the Hank Williams songs to the train whistles blowing, this is a rare auditory experience! I managed to get all the videos going at once, what a cacophony! I don't live near a train, but when I visit anywhere that has trains I really enjoy hearing the whistle in the distance. The closest I have to that is the ferry boat horn which is also nice.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 14, 2011:

MsLizzy, I enjoyed your comment so much. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories. And your enthusiasm for this Hub really made my day! ("...danced all over the buttons"!)

I've kind of wondered about viewers of this Hub who work in offices, and if the volume was turned up on their PCs/laptops when they clicked on some of the videos...What a hoot! Those horn and whistle sounds most likely shocked a few out of somnolence.

I hope you make a long-distance train ride one day. Today's Amtrak can't compare to train service in years gone by, but the things that never change about rail travel are the mystique of the sounds of horns and of wheels on steel, the other-worldliness of speeding landscapes, and the glimpses of time gone by that you see when you roll through an abandoned railway station somewhere out in the middle of nowhere.

BTW...Today while shopping (I like to give exact change to rid my wallet of the weight of coins) I had a bill ending in 79 cents. I spilled my coins out on the counter and found I had three quarters and a nickel, but no pennies except the squashed one from our recent family reunion. The clerk saw that squashed penny and laughed...then he and I had a great conversation about squashing pennies on railroad tracks.

I think trains bring people together.

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on September 13, 2011:

Oh, my goodness, what a wonderful hub! I, too, am a train buff, but sadly, I've never had the chance to "go anywhere" by train. I've only ridden the restored excursion routes that are out-and-back in an hour or a day.

My father came cross-country by train as a boy, and there were more trains in his day, and he had many memories, so I guess "train-a-philia" is just in my blood.

For years, I have been attempting to create and run an N-scale model layout, but I always seem to run out of time, money or both before getting very far.

The California RR Museum is one of my favorite places, and I love riding the "Skunk" train from Willits to Fort Bragg and back--(that's an all-day trip)--but it's also nearly $50 a head--probably more by now, so no longer in the budget.

I LOVED the videos and all the train whistles. We have freight trains and a couple of commuter runs that pass through our area..we can hear the freighters at night..there are the midnight, 1:a.m. and 2:a.m. trains. If I'm asleep, they don't wake me, but if I'm awake, I strain to hear them at each crossing as they fade into the which time I usually do fall asleep.

Danced all over the buttons on this one!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 07, 2011:

Thanks, Simone. It was a lot of fun putting this Hub together.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on September 07, 2011:

What a fun auditory exploration of trains! LOVE this Hub!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 06, 2011:

Hyphenbird, ty so much for reading and commenting. I didn't say anything about the smells, but you are so right. Along any railroad track there's a certain smell...engine grease or whatever...that lodges in our heads, whether we can speak of them or not.

Thanks for this insight.

Yeah, I think Hank is a bit of icing; to make your voice sound like a steam train, well, he and Ellwood have the lock on that.

Brenda Barnes from America-Broken But Still Beautiful on September 06, 2011:

I didn't get a notification on this Hub. I am so glad I saw it as I was looking at Hubs in general. And I love trains and all the sounds, smells and history. You have put together a perfect Hub here with information, great pictures and Hank is the icing on the cake. Whooooooo

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on September 06, 2011:

We will do it when we make our first million :D

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 06, 2011:

I would, too, UW. I just spent entirely too much time on the net after reading your comment, looking at Royal Scotsman images. I want kippers and egg for breakfast!

Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on September 06, 2011:

I would love to take the Royal Scotsman one day...and the Orient Express. Like you I love trains.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 06, 2011:

Hello, hello, you have magnificent trains in the UK. While researching this article, I found so many, many more references to and images of UK steam trains than I did American. Maybe you will write a Hub about them one day? :)

As always, thank you for commenting...I always enjoy hearing from you!

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 06, 2011:

Robie, lucky you, you've got the New Hope & Ivyland just a short walk across the bridge from Lambertville. Its steam whistle doesn't blow across the prairie, nor at night, but it is such a rare treat to have in our congested world. BTW, did you know they run a murder mystery dinner event?

Thank you, my friend, for reading and sharing your memories and thoughts...oh, and for leaving the good words, too. :)

Hello, hello, from London, UK on September 06, 2011:

This hub is right up my street. I love trains and especially the old once. They were masterpieces and so nostalgic. Thank you for this wonderfully written article.

Roberta Kyle from Central New Jersey on September 05, 2011:

Oh ST, thank you. I loved this one. I remember visiting my grandparents in Kansas and listening to the train whistles at night-- the sound of those long distance trains on the prairies is nothing like the sound of commuter trains here in the Northeast corridor--I don't find the sound lonely, I find it comforting as it fans out across the plains at night. I miss it here on the East Coast -- thanks for those vids They brought back memories

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 05, 2011:

moonlake, you painted such a nostalgic image when you wrote about waving to the hobos. In my research I found this book: "One More Train to Ride: The Underground World of Modern American Hoboes," which takes an in-depth view of the modern hobo's way of life and how it relates to the past.

Thanks so much for your comment, for sharing your memories...I think I may have another Hub in the works because of your words. :)

Oh, and about the 3751, it's just awesome that this may be the locomotive you remember. Magnificent, isn't it?

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 05, 2011:

JamaGenee, I love your story about being "tooted." LOL I think it's got something to do with guys and their horns...truck drivers with 18 wheelers and air horns do this, too.

About " anybody awake?", I know what you mean. Not only are there many different kinds of horns and whistles, but each engineer and whistle man has his own style. That video of the 28 diesels going over crossings is just amazing...even though the signal is long-long-short-long, no two trains sound the same. What a joy to hear them during the night and imagine what they are saying. Thanks for the awesome comment.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 05, 2011:

Om Paramapoonya, thank you for sharing that lovely memory. Cotton candy! I haven't had that treat in years and years. Maybe you will write a Hub about this memory? I'd love to see that photo and read about your experience.

moonlake from America on September 04, 2011:

We stayed at our daughter's house and she was so worried the train passing through at 2:00 am would wake us. It never did. I have never minded a train going by reminds me of my childhood and the steam locomotive that use to run behind my grandma's place in Arkansas.

Also the steam locomotive that use to run behind our house in San Bernardino. We use to wave to the hobos. I didn't know they had restored it and that it is still running. I don't know if it was the same train but very likely it was. I remember driving by the San Bernardino roundhouse.

Enjoyed your hub.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 04, 2011:

Great hub, Sally! Except for one 10-year period, I've always lived within hearing distance of trains and their whistles. But each time I move, they keep me awake for a few nights until I get used to the new schedule. Don't even "hear" them if I'm up late reading, except for one recent night around 2:30 a.m. Don't know if it was a new engineer or an old one just playing around, but instead of the normal "Woo! Woo!", it was an odd, muffled "Woo?... Woo?..." that sounded every bit like " anybody awake?".

Engineers do use those whistles to flirt! I was on the way home from work one afternoon and got stopped at a crossing. A freight train was approaching from my left, but seeing it was a long one, I was grabbing a book from my purse when I heard an insistent "Woo! Woo! woowoowoo!". When I looked up, two delicious hunks of eye candy were grinning and waving from the cab of the engine! ;D

Om Paramapoonya on September 04, 2011:

Sally, this is such a lovely hub. I had been on several train trips when I was a child. In fact, a picture of me and my cousin eating cotton candy on a train is one of my favorite childhood photos ever. We had such an awesome time. Your hub has brought back some of my fondest memories. Thanks! :)

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 04, 2011:

Trish, your uncle was a railroad man, an engineer, I believe. He saw it all. I wish we could have a conversation with him now. :)

To me, the lonesome whistle sound always means wanderlust.

trish1048 on September 04, 2011:

What comes to mind is men standing around in a train yard holding their hands clasped around a cup of coffee as they stood near a barrel of fire, trying to keep warm. It also brings to mind the vagabonds, the drifters and the bums who hopped trains and traveled the countryside.

I often wondered what it would be like to have that wanderlust, and go where it takes you.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 04, 2011:

Neil, it delights me to no end that your granddaughter wanted to know if the train was coming to her house. Priceless. I looked long and hard to get the sounds I wanted, and my efforts paid off!

There's also the vagabond, hobo aspect of trains, especially during the Great Depression, and even today. I think the sound of the "lonesome whistle" is embedded in our American psyche, standing for more things than you can shake a stick at, especially for those of us who are a bit older.

Thank you, my friend, for your awesome comment and for sharing the inquisitiveness of a child...that's where it all begins. ~Sherri

proudgrandpa from Charlotte, NC on September 04, 2011:

I would say that you did your Mom proud and you seem to have enjoyed the journey as well. As a kid we smashed coins in South Florida under the fast moving freight trains, What a thrill. Union Station in Cincinnati, the rail yards in Camden New Jersey. They each amaze me.

I am up in the Mountains visiting my Son and Granddaughter and she just came down the stairs and asked if the train was coming to her house.

Why is the sound of a train sooooooo lonesome?

Great hub and thanks for all the research and variety of stuff in this hub. You are the bestest. NEIL

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 04, 2011:

WesternHistory, thank you for commenting and leaving the good words. I share your wish for high-speed rail development, although I can't imagine how it could be as epochal as the westward expansion.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 04, 2011:

Green Art, thank you for leaving this lovely comment. I am hoping that most readers will do just as you and listen at the same time. Nothing like reading about trains while being able to listen to them, too. :)

WesternHistory from California on September 04, 2011:

This is a terrific hub. I absolutely love trains and their history of development. Trains were a key element in the westward advance of America and I don't think there will be another era like it. Hopefully some day we will have high speed trains in the U.S. Thanks for a great post.

Laura Ross on September 04, 2011:

I love this hub! I had the videos of the train whistles going and Hank Williams Jr. singing all at the same time while I was reading it. Trains are wonderful especially the sounds the different whistles make.

Every time my husband and I go to Chicago we take the Metra Union Pacific Northwest train line in from Harvard, IL. A few years ago we took an Amtrak cross country train trip from Chicago to Oregon. It's a great way to travel and see the country roll by.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 03, 2011:

dahoglund, your comment touches my heart. In researching the vids for this Hub, I stayed away from settings where trash and contemporary graffiti compromised my childhood memories and the recent experience I had in this rural Ohio town.

For many years I commuted by rail into Philadelphia to go to work. In the winter, the snow was blackened, just as you say, there's no getting around it.

I love trains and buses, but also air travel. Air travel gives me the bird's eye view. But we are all different in our preferences...I prefer cars and trains.

TY for your thoughtful comments.

Sherri (author) from Southeastern Pennsylvania on September 03, 2011:

Marisue, the romance of this lives in you, too. What could be better than a RR engineer putting a baby on his lap and sharing the mighty energy of this great machine. What an awesome memory you have!

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on September 03, 2011:

I remember growing up where the train ran a few blocks from our house.On the bad side there was pollution. The snow was usually covered with soot.Trains and buses, in my mind, were much better than air travel. At least you could look out the window and see something,

marisuewrites from USA on September 03, 2011:

Oh my that does bring back memories. We lived near trains in New Mexico, and I was always fascinated and frequently threatened by worried parents! "Stay away from the tracks! You'll get squashed!" Well, I stayed back, but not away. It's proof of Guardian Angels that only my pennies got flattened. The power of the trains always gave a thrill, and imagined journeys took wings in my mind. I remember engineers waving hello and the man in the caboose waving goodbye. I'm told when we moved from Chickasha to Alamogordo, when I was 3, I sat on the Engineers lap with my Dad nearby. Supposedly, the Engineer was "smitten" with my dazzling smile when he did a walk through, or maybe it was my pigtails....LOL and asked if I'd like to come into the Engineer's Car. oH MY, Thank goodness I had manners, as my Dad said I was all giggles. I would have hated to kick the Engineer. What fun memories and I enjoyed every squeek, rattle, and whistle of these videos. Thank you Sherri! Choo Choo!! Aaaaa choo!

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