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Friday, July 02, 2010

Steamship Sound Back On Chautauqua Belle

MAYVILLE - A rare and intricate musical instrument is aboard the Chautauqua Belle, and local residents have a unique opportunity to hear it played both on shore and at sea.

A steam calliope has been placed temporarily on the steamship's deck, and Mat Stage - president of U.S. Steam Lines LTD, which operates the Belle - said that the response has been overwhelming in the week the intoxicating music has been playing from its pipes.

''It's absolutely amazing when we play it going into Chautauqua Institution or into Mayville - everyone gives the biggest round of applause we've ever received in the boat here,'' Stage said. ''They just are awestruck listening to this beautiful music.''

Steam calliopes were regular entities on riverboats in the age of steam. The ship's propulsion boiler provides the steam that is piped through the organ, with a keyboard player controlling the release of steam from whistles to create the music.

Today, the Chautauqua Belle is one of only four steamships in the United States that is 100 percent steam-powered, and the only one without its own calliope. Stage said the ship did feature its own calliope when it was built, but that the not-for-profit Chautauqua Belle eventually lost the instrument as a donation to a museum. It now resides in Kingston, Ontario.

However, the original calliope on the Chautauqua Belle was one of the largest ever built and used up too much of the ship's steam anyway - meaning that it could not be operated while the ship was on Chautauqua Lake, only while it was docked.

''They wouldn't be able to play it and run the boat at the same time,'' Stage said. ''This is a much better situation for the boat here. It's a little bit smaller, but it sounds beautiful.''

Dave Morecraft, the Indiana-based calliope enthusiast who brought the instrument to the Chautauqua Belle, said that he travels around the country with his Morecraft Mfg. Steam Calliope 44 in the back of his circus wagon. He reverse-engineered calliope whistles after getting his hands on a set in 1979, he said, and began building the instruments. He has built seven fully functioning calliopes to date, he said, including the one that plays on the Belle of Louisville - the oldest operating steamboat in the United States - and the American Queen on the Mississippi River.

''The first instrument I ever heard was the Delta Queen's, which I heard in Cincinnati when I was a little kid in probably 1964-65,'' Morecraft said. ''The sound just kind of stuck with me, how it filled the Ohio River Valley.''

Each of the whistles on the calliope has a rolled copper sheet bell, Morecraft said, which he personally rolls and cuts to size individually to tune. Morecraft plays a variety of songs on the instrument, from has been entertaining visitors to the Belle - as well as neighbors from around the lake - throughout the week with performances.

''We had one gentleman today who lives across the lake, near Maple Springs, who said he's just loved listening to it,'' Morecraft said.


During the county Independence Day celebration in Mayville on Saturday, Stage said the Chautauqua Belle will cancel its normal 11 a.m. run so that the calliope can be played for interested people on shore.

''We'll play for about a half an hour up here in Mayville Park,'' Stage said. ''People will be able to come on board and look at it - most people have no idea what it is. It's really neat just to watch it play.''

The next night, those who take part in the Chautauqua Belle's July 4 fireworks cruise to Bemus Point will receive a special treat, Stage said.

''One of the things I'm excited about is that we're going to go down to the bridge so that we can play it and hear the reverb off the bridge,'' he said. ''We're going to play it after the fireworks, play all the patriotic songs. It's really going to top everything off.''

And while the Morecraft Mfg. Steam Calliope 44 will only be on the Chautauqua Belle for about another week, Stage said there are plans in the works to get a permanent calliope producing music on the steamship in the near future.

''In the long run, we're looking to have one built for the boat, that's what we're hoping for,'' Stage said. ''We have everything piped in for a calliope to be installed - we ran all the new steamlines and all that. It's the next project we have for the boat here, to have an authentic calliope just like all the other steamers that are left in our country.''

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