Fake whistles and real memories

I hear the whistle, and feel a stirring within–sort of like an old racehorse who hears the starting bell and begins to trot in place.

In my mind’s eye, I see an engine with a string of ore cars behind it, chugging into town with a load of taconite. I see the billows of steam from a steam engine, pulling passenger cars on the Scenic Railway line. I tamp down the urge to grab my camera and head out for the perfect shot.

The whistle I hear is a fake. It’s a signal that the huge gantry crane at the shipbuilding plant is on the move, straddling the ore boat in the big dry dock and carrying supplies to the place of repair. It’s not a train whistle, and never will be, because there are no trains in Door County.

I’m told there once was. The Ahnapee and Western railroad ran 34.5 miles from a

Ready to roll. Photo by Monica Sawyn

Ready to roll. Photo by Monica Sawyn


connection with the Kewaunee, Green Bay and Western Railroad at Casco Junction to the lakeshore terminals of Algoma in Kewaunee County and Sturgeon Bay here in Door County, Wis. Ahnapee used to be Algoma’s name.
On the east side of the waters of Sturgeon Bay sits the old depot, now converted into an entertainment venue–a good move, rescuing a historic building from the vacant doldrums into which it had been sinking.

The railroad swing bridge that spanned the bay was condemned back in the 1960s, and as part of the rails-to-trails move that turned the old line into a biking/hiking trail, is now a way for walkers to venture into the waters of Sturgeon Bay without getting their feet wet.

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Tracks were never laid any farther north. The farms and orchards and fishing villages never echoed to the siren sounds of the whistles. Kids never raced trains on their bikes, cows never raised placid heads to watch them slide by on shiny rails. No one born and raised here knows the thrill of a train chase.

But I do, and I miss it. Maybe not the diesel engines so much, but definitely the romance of those chugging steam engines. I loved seeing them snake through the countryside during the summer tourist season, hugging the Lake Superior shore, leaving steam billows behind like tracks in the snow. Housewives once hated all that belching that could ruin a week’s worth of wash hanging on the lines. Now, with most people drying inside in machines, that smoke has become nostalgia in the wind.

Whistles at every little junction and road; clackity-clacks over the

Photo by Monica Sawyn

Photo by Monica Sawyn

old wooden trestles and river bridges, happy tourists’ arms out the windows waving proudly at everyone watching along the way. And once in town, the once-over by the railroad crew, the whistle before departing again a few hours later, steam escaping from valves near the wheels, the smells, the sounds,  the milling amateur photographers hoping to capture the perfect piece of history.
It was always my intent to find new places to watch and to shoot. I’d head out with my fellow train-nut friend Todd, or jump on my motorcycle and anticipate when the train would hit the trestle, or the bridge, or some other vantage point. No matter how many photos I’d taken, or how busy I was when the train was due in, the whistle always got to me, and I’d have to drop everything just one more time.

It’s been five years since I’ve been anywhere near a steam train. It’s been four years since I’ve lived where there was any kind of train at all. So, for me, the fake whistle at the shipyard is a tantalizing tease. Whenever it blows, every single time, I see steam, and hear wheels on rails, and remember…

Check here for some video I shot in Two Harbors, Minn., with the old DM&IR depot in the background.


About Monica Sawyn

I'm a retired newspaper reporter/columnist, and although I still freelance, I miss the weekly column I used to write. I still "see columns" in everyday life and need a place to put them after they're written--thus, this blog. I'm Catholic, have been a Benedictine oblate since 1977, and live with my husband and our beagle in Sturgeon Bay, Wis. When I'm not writing, I'm probably reading, sewing, taking photos or walking the dog.
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4 Responses to Fake whistles and real memories

  1. blb1 says:

    I may not remember these trains but I do remember the diesel trains running the track behind Grandma’s house. Always they would blow their whistles. I love the sound.

    • Monica Sawyn says:

      It’s definitely a sound like no other. The steam trains I really remember are ones that were resurrected by dedicated rain fans and used in the tourist runs I make reference to. But it’s still steam!

  2. Sister Edith says:

    Thanks for this! I think I would have similar feelings if I lost my fog horn.

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