Ferry Whistles on Puget Sound: A Slideshow

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 2/14/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7191
For more than a century, ferryboat captains on Puget Sound have used a distinctive docking signal made up of a long blast on the boat’s whistle followed by two short ones. In maritime terms, this is called a warp and two woofs. Still in use today, this method of sounding the vessel’s arrival to land is not only unique to each boat’s whistle, but also to each individual ferryboat captain and the techniques they use to sound the call.

This file links to sound recordings of some of the more distinctive boat whistles of the Washington State Ferry fleet. Retired Black Ball Line publicist William O. Thorniley made the recordings in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the vessels presented here are still with us, while others have sailed off into the annals of history. Thanks to Bill Thorniley, their echoes remain.

A Warp and Two Woofs

During the first part of the twentieth century, the Puget Sound Navigation Company’s Black Ball Line was the largest operator of private ferries on Puget Sound. Black Ball captains began the tradition of sounding the warp and two woofs on their boat whistle as the vessel approached the dock. This was an alert to passengers that their transport was arriving, and it also acted as a warning to nearby craft. In deep fog, the distinctive signal let listeners know which ship was coming in to dock.

In the early days, sounding the whistle was accomplished by pulling a cord, which released steam, generated below, into pipes which fed into the brass whistle. The resulting sound could be heard for miles. Over time, individual captains began accenting the blasts with their own “signatures.” Some fluttered the last woof, some inserted long pauses between blasts, some played with tempo, all the while making sure that each signal was, at heart, one long and two shorts.

Whistle Stops

In 1951, Washington state purchased most of the Puget Sound Navigation Company’s fleet and began the operation of Washington State Ferries. On the first day of operation, a memo was circulated stating that the docking signal would change immediately from the Black Ball "long and two shorts" to a simple "long and short."

The fleet’s captains, most of whom were old Black Ball men, went along with the changes, but disliked the alteration in tradition. Many of them referred to the new signal as “the groan and the grunt.” When veteran captain Louis Van Bogaert (once Commodore of the Black Ball Line) retired in 1957, other ferrymen dared him to end his last run with the traditional blast. That he did, on September 13, 1957, aboard the ferry Chippewa, ending his illustrious career with his last warp and two woofs.

Such Sweet Music

By this time the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, and especially society member William O. Thorniley was calling for a return to tradition. A colorful, tousle-haired character, Thorniley was the former advertising manager of the Black Ball Line. It was Thorniley who began the tradition of naming Black Ball ferries (and later Washington State Ferries) in honor of the region’s Native American culture. Thorniley also helped the Kalakala achieve worldwide fame in the 1930s.

Using his expert marketing skills, Thorniley went on a publicity blitz urging the ferry system to return to the days of the warp and two woofs. In an interview with The Seattle Times on March 9, 1958, he waxed nostalgic over the unique signals performed by many of Puget Sound’s noteworthy captains:

“One of the specialists on the whistle was Captain Harry Anderson, now operating manager of Washington State Ferries. Anderson skippered the famous stern-wheeler Bailey Gatzert between Seattle and Bremerton in the 1920s. The Gatzert had a particularly melodious “five-chime” whistle that sounded five notes at once, and Anderson used to get as much music out of his whistle as did anyone on the Sound.

“Anderson blew a normal length long, but the second short blast had a flutter to it. This was accomplished by skillfully manipulating the whistle cord up and down on the last short. That was sweet music.

"Captain Howard Penfield was master of the Indianapolis, on the Seattle-Tacoma run. He had an opposite system of whistling. Penfield would wait until he got right up close to the dock and then blew a very short long, followed in quick succession by two very short shorts. The whistle on the Indianapolis was a deep bass that hit you in the pit of your stomach and rattled waiting room windows.

"Captain Wallace Mangan was the first master of the ferry Kalakala. He blew a normal long and then after a decided pause, he’d follow it with two shorts in sharp staccato.

“Another artist on the landing whistle in the days of the steamers was Captain T. E. Sumner, known as ‘Big Ed.’ Sumner would start in with just a little steam, let the whistle build up to full blast, then fade down again and follow it with two snappy blasts.”

Tooting Their Own Horn

After listening to the appeals of Bill Thorniley and other maritime historians, the seven-year-old Washington State Ferry system agreed that their own history and traditions went back much further than they first had realized. On May 24, 1958, in celebration of Maritime Day, WSF manager I. D. "Bud" Birse happily announced that the traditional warp and two woofs would be reinstated as the official landing signal for Washington State ferries.

Bill Thorniley continued on in his research into maritime history, writing numerous articles for maritime journals and giving lectures throughout the region. One of his most popular talks involved a sound recording of ferry whistles that he had put together over the years. Thorniley would play the tape for his audience, pausing before every blast to mention the name of the boat and the captain pulling the whistle.

Blasts From the Past

Below are links to digitized recordings taken from Thorniley’s tape. Twenty-one ferry whistles are presented, with the name of each boat and captain, along with information about the vessel.

There are two versions of the recordings available:

The sounds are embedded in the web pages, and many browsers require no special software to play them. If the whistles "stutter," click your browser's "Refresh" or "Reload" button to clear up the sound.

Shockwave Enhanced version. Requires the free Shockwave plugin, available here.


Sources: The Seattle Times, March 9, 1958, p. 1; M. S. Cline, and G. A. Bayless, Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1983); The H.W. McCurdy Marine History of the Pacific Northwest ed. by Gordon Newell (Seattle: The Superior Publishing Company, 1977). Thanks to Steven J. Pickens for providing some of the photos.

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