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