Out with a blast: the Pratt whistles blow one final(?) time

When I put up the list of my five most-popular posts from 2013, I knew I had one last ace up my sleeve. On Tuesday morning, the final day of the year, the Times published my piece on Conrad Milster, the longtime Pratt engineer who has blown his steam whistles at midnight each New Year’s Eve since 1965.

This might have been the last year for this tradition. There was no way I was going to miss it. I brought my camcorder and took a video to record the event.

I also managed to get some footage of the downstairs of the Engine Room, which you can see here.

Now, for a little behind-the-scenes.

I visited Pratt’s Engine Room last Thursday, hoping to catch Conrad. Unfortunately, he was ill with the flu, but was nice enough to give me a call on Friday afternoon, after which I breathed a huge sigh of relief. (You can’t not deliver something to the Times.)

On New Year’s Eve, I headed to the quad at 6:00 pm, hoping to catch him before things got too wild. Unfortunately, he was resting at home, still feeling under the weather.

ETA: As it turns out, I had missed the test-run, which took place during daylight hours.

The whistles were almost all set up, surrounded by caution tape.

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The Engine Room is home to the Pratt Cats, around a dozen felines cared for by Conrad. This one’s name is Prancey; according to one engineer, she hasn’t been feeling well lately.

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Conrad doesn’t do this on his own. He has a number of “steamhead” friends who lend a hand in the set-up. In the boiler room’s workshop, these guys were discussing which attachment might work best with a particular whistle.

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The Engine Room’s bottom floor is home to three Ames steam engines dating from 1900. They’re no longer used for electricity, although one would be turned on later in the evening.

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Conrad built a 32-note calliope for the 2000 celebration. It was set up six hours early, and ready to be played by anyone who dared blow these whistles. All that was needed here was a steam supply and a keyboard.

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I returned around 11:30 with a few friends. We took a walk around the Engine Room. Well, maybe “walk” isn’t the proper word. We slithered around people admiring the awesomeness of this steampunk fantasyland.

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Some of the Pratt Cats were still around, despite the crowds. This one sought shelter in a corner.

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Back outside, the whistles were set to blow! After the show, champagne bottles, flasks, and beers were in copious supply. A few people lit sparklers.

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Once the true steamheads had blown the whistles a few times, the floor was opened to anyone interested. These kids really enjoyed playing the calliope.

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At 12:40, the steam was shut off, to the chagrin of all remaining. Many gathered in the Engine Room, which was so nice and toasty that I considered finding a comfy spot and falling asleep. One guy made his move almost an hour late, but was successful anyway.

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Here’s a slideshow with some more photos for your nostalgic pleasure.

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5 Responses to Out with a blast: the Pratt whistles blow one final(?) time

  1. Tricia says:

    Love this! Thanks again for introducing me to the Pratt steam whistles via your tweets. Hope there is a next time so I may attend in person. Happy New Year!

  2. Pingback: Daily analysis, Friday, January 10 | The Final Wager

  3. Dear Keith, Thank you so much for sharing the video of New Year’s Eve. I found the link to your page while doing research for my Facebook page; https://www.facebook.com/BajaBeachClubDetroitSurvivors which salutes the SS Lansdowne. The Lansdowne was turned into a nightclub in 1991, and I worked ther for quite a while. I really liked that ship a lot. It was great o hear the whistle and know part of it is alive and well in 2014. Thank you again, and thank Conrad, too!

    • Keith Williams says:

      Cool stuff, Jennifer! Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be sure to share your link with Conrad, too.

    • Capt Jim Miller says:

      Jennifer,Im not a Facebook advocate,Any chance to communicate with you via E-mail, I grew up on Lansdowne + took over from my Dad Capt Nick saad I donated a lot of interior pictures and wondered if you had photos, Id like to recoup some memories, By the way Im proudly The Last Capt to Master her under her own power blowing a piston out of Detroit one night in oh 1970 Thanks Jim (863)651-2017

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