Perched on top of a wooden pole in the 800 block of Oak Street is a siren that sounds every day at noon.

Photo by Matt Stensland

Perched on top of a wooden pole in the 800 block of Oak Street is a siren that sounds every day at noon.

Noon siren still sings

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Noon whistle

Some business owners wish Steamboat's noon siren would never sound again.

Some business owners wish Steamboat's noon siren would never sound again.

photo

TREAD OF PIONEERS MUSEUM/courtesy

Yampa Valley Milling and Elevator Co. burned Feb. 28, 1958, on the site of what is now the Iron Horse Inn. Steamboat's emergency whistle, still heard every day at noon, called firefighters to the scene.

photo

TREAD OF PIONEERS MUSEUM/courtesy

Steamboat Springs' emergency whistle is shown in this undated photo.

— There used to be a reason for it.

People used to know why every day at noon the quiet bustle in downtown Steamboat Springs is shattered by a lonely wail, a screeching blast of sound that lasts only a few seconds, but genuinely hurts if you get close enough.

Now, no one seems to know who controls it.

The siren is chalked up to alerting the fire department and signaling breaks for miners, to playing defense in the Cold War and giving the go-ahead for downing the first beer of the day.

Most people ignore it. Some are confused by it. And some others, including businesspeople and homeowners who have no choice but to be close to it, have tried to silence Steamboat's iconic noon whistle on a handful of occasions.

But the daily siren keeps singing.

The real reason

"It's there, and you hear it, but it doesn't really register because you're so used to hearing it," said Steamboat resident of 40 years Barb DeVries, 77, who used to sound the alarm to call volunteer firefighters to blazes in the late 1960s and early '70s.

"There was an answering service in the basement of the courthouse," DeVries said. "The courthouse janitor's wife was the one who would pull the switch for the fire alarm to go off, and then she'd come back and wait for all the volunteer firefighters to call back."

When Steamboat law enforcement burgeoned to include three police officers and four Sheriff's deputies, DeVries was part of an answering service expansion that split the work. The alarm had to be loud enough for Steamboat's all-volunteer force to hear, and it made a test run every day at lunchtime - noon - and quitting time at 5 p.m.

"We had a button that set the thing off. We always prayed that we wouldn't have a fire on our shift, because it was just too much chaos with all those people calling in on the same line," DeVries said of the slew of calls from officers and firefighters trying to find out where the emergency was.

Moving on

Eventually, firefighters got pagers and became full-time employees, and the late-night alarms stopped. Workers stopped going home for lunch and quitting time stopped being so universal.

With no tangible reason to keep going, the noon whistle has become a relic of a town that used to be smaller and an institution that no one really cherishes but can't imagine tossing aside.

"It's become more of a tradition than anything else," said Tracy Barnett, executive director of Main Street Steamboat. As one of its first actions in 2004, the group fielded complaints from nearby business owners about the daily disturbance.

If we can't get rid of it, the earache-addled entrepreneurs asked, can't we at least make it a little more palatable, a little less - awful?

"There was some effort - not a big effort - to get the siren changed to a steamboat whistle," Barnett said. "It wouldn't be quite as irritating, and it could be done with computers and using the same sound system. But it was a $10,000 project or something, and basically, it was dropped at that point because there wasn't a big enough desire to change it."

Main Street did a newspaper poll to test support for the proposed change of tune, and found that for most Steamboat residents, the lunch whistle is not a pressing issue.

"It turned out that most people seemed to like it. It was just the ones right up close who didn't," Barnett said, adding that even those who despise the air-raid wail are not principally opposed to its existence.

"They still like the idea of the noon whistle; they just don't like the sound," she said.

A long history

Perhaps unfairly, the whistle has been tied to several bouts of bad news. There are those who think it started during World War II as an air-raid siren, and those who are sure it became a fire alarm after the Cabin Hotel burned Jan. 24, 1939.

According to the Tread of Pioneers Museum, which has a display on that infamous hotel fire, when the blaze broke out at 11:45 a.m., firefighters may have mistakenly thought the alarm was just the everyday noon whistle. A delay in response could have facilitated the quick spread of the fire, which consumed the Cabin Hotel in less than 45 minutes and resulted in two deaths. The Cabin Hotel had 100 guest rooms, two parlors and a grand staircase. It stood on the site that is now home to Bud Werner Memorial Library.

A similar scenario occurred again more than 30 years later. The whistle has shouldered blame for delaying firefighters who should have immediately responded to an 11:49 a.m. call to a burning ski jump in 1972 but again figured lunchtime had come early.

Despite all its connections to misfortune, the whistle has been here a lot longer than just about everybody in the valley.

"I've been here all my life, and I don't ever remember being without it," said Benita Ralston Bristol, an 86-year-old Routt County native who sits on the Colorado Mountain College Board of Directors.

Bristol is quick to dismiss the Cabin Hotel hypothesis or the air-raid reasoning - she remembers hearing a noon and 5 p.m. bell well before any of that, and recalls getting out of school early the day of the fire to watch the hotel burn.

"The noon whistle has just always been," she said.

Comments

MtnWarlock 6 years, 9 months ago

This is another fine example of people trying to change Steamboat into the place in which they came, in my opinion. I lived on Pine street many years, in the same neighborhood as the siren, and it never bothered me. I have lived here 25+ years now! One could only speculate that the new generation Steamboater cares nothing about heritage and what makes Steamboat different from the rest. Just my stupid opinion.

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bloggyblog 6 years, 9 months ago

blog thinks we should change that old siren so it sounds like a flock of singing birds, or how about a nice ,soothing, babbling brook. how about a nice song instead...preferably some soft rock, something by the carpenters or maybe airsupply!

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424now 6 years, 9 months ago

It could make me believe What tomorrow could bring When today doesn't really know Doesn't really know

I'm all out of love I'm so lost without you It can't be to late To say that I was so wrong.

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BloatedTire 6 years, 9 months ago

424now: I'll drink to that!... (WTF?)

Please don't take my siren... how else will I know when it is drinking time?

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berticus 6 years, 9 months ago

How about updating to being a Storm Warning system?

My university town had a similar sounding siren that went off daily for testing purposes and then would go off when it detected lightning impending to help people get out of the storm's path.

Same tradition, new usefulness.

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handyman 6 years, 9 months ago

In Cannon Beach, OR, the first Monday of the month they test their tsunami warning system and they use a cow moo. It's pretty funny.

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Steamboatsense 6 years, 9 months ago

It's noise pollution. If it had a purpose I would totally understand but it doesn't. Maybe some people should just buy a watch so they know it's noon. Are they clueless. I'm a fourth generation and it's time for that thing to go. You can't us Jack Brakes on trucks but we have to listen that thing everyday. And some people think that this makes Steamboat, Steamboat.

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MtnWarlock 6 years, 9 months ago

Steamboatsense, I really don't think that this whistle makes Steamboat what it is. Maybe it's that their are so many things about Steamboat that are changing, that people just hate to see another part of history removed! In emergency management, the siren still has a function to perform. If a relocation effort was ever approved, too many N.I.M.B.Y.S. (No in my back yard sucker) people would protest it as well! Maybe we could do away with the stupid alert systems on the TV and radio as well! They are annoying, aren't they? Let's just leave the masses clueless in an emergency because a few people find it an annoyance. Maybe they don't need to test it as often as they do, as a compromise to those who are really annoyed! Maybe they could relocate it to the middle of the Routt National Forest and "PO" all the wild life. The DOW would have Elk and Deer protesting their offices. LOL! Next we will revisit "light pollution" and it's annoyances. Then, sign pollution on our landscapes. Then, ........etc.! Have a good one! ;-]

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424now 6 years, 9 months ago

Warlock,

Well spoken.

We are going through a level of change this little mountain village has never before seen. There are going to be things done that will alter the landscape forever. In twenty years anyone would be hard pressed to find an original piece of "the Boat"

What we need to do is identify and preserve the heritage pieces of Architecture, Landscape and Culture. The Cowboy Downhill, Ice sculptures, Open Spaces and most important our sense of community.

I poked fun at the siren and then I thought about it. It has been in the background of my life in Steamboat. It might not be a heratage Item. That I believe is up to all of us.

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