Our delightful American Queen was designed with historical authenticity at the very heart.  Deck-by-deck she took shape and to ensure that final touch of steamboat class, she was presented with her steam calliope. She had to be carefully and lovingly created in such a way as to offer her guests an authentic experience – one that in many respects would take them back in time.

The steam calliope is a musical instrument that produces sound by sending steam through large whistles – steam that was typically supplied by the vessel’s propulsion boilers and whistles that were quite often originally locomotive whistles. It was invented in America around 1850 by A.S. Denny and then patented in 1855 by Joshua C. Stoddart. He originally intended to use the instrument in a church, but it was soon picked up by the circus and then found its way to the Lower Mississippi River where it delighted aboard the showboats. The Calliope is pronounced “kally-ope” at the circus, but on the river it’s usually pronounced “kal-eye-o-pee”.

It’s believed that the Excelsior was the first western steamboat to have a calliope and in 1960, the Delta Queen received the first calliope with a remote keyboard located at a safe distance from the steam churning whistles.

David Morecraft of Peru, Indiana, fabricated and installed the American Queen’s beautiful set of 37 shining, gold-plated whistles along with the keyboard on which they are played. A calliope can have anywhere from 25 to 67 whistles, but 32 is the more traditional number, especially for steam calliopes.

Video Credit: Dr. Ross Wirth

There’s no denying that Calliope’s are loud, and they’re supposed to be. What’s the point of having such a remarkable musical instrument if you can’t hear it? The whistles of a calliope are turned to chromatic scale, and this is quite a difficult process. It’s nearly impossible to accurately turn – as each note is affected by the temperature of the steam – but this inaccuracy has allowed the off-pitch tones to become somewhat of a trademark of the steam calliope.

The Steam Calliope experience

Picture the scene. Another wonderful day ashore and you return ‘home’ to American Queen, just as the sun begins to set. The ropes are let loose, her iconic red paddle-wheeler begins to churn, and the sounds of the calliope bid farewell to one destination as you set sail for another. But, wait, it doesn’t end there because you too could try your hand at playing the calliope! Usually, once per cruise, we hold an event where guests can learn the skill of playing the calliope and upon successful completion, they receive a certificate to prove it!

Steam Calliope certificate American Queen

A voyage with American Queen is unlike any other in the world and we invite you to order a copy of our latest brochure, which details our itineraries in full and highlights our fantastic fleet of paddle-wheelers. Experience American Queen’s steam calliope in real time on a 9 to 16 day luxury river cruise.

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