The first time I was made aware of it, I couldn’t un-hear it. Every day, I noticed it, first at noon, and then at five. It became a small comfort, something I could rely on.
Along the way, I’ve let others know of its existence, incredulous friends who later thanked me and sent mid-day texts that stated simply ‘lunch-time’ and later ‘quittin’ time’.
It became helpful as my partner and I worked in the backyard this summer. It went off, we looked at each other, smiled and put the tools down for a break.
What I’m referring to, of course, is the old Black Clawson-Kennedy factory whistle that still goes off in daily tribute to the Owen Sound blue collar workers that were the backbone of this industrial town for hundreds of years.
After hearing it for so many years, I decided, firstly, to go find where it was located and, secondly, why it was still going off on the daily (is it still cool to say ‘on the daily?).
The first question led me to the old Marine and Rail Museum along the harbour in Owen Sound where the whistle sits stoically on the rooftop of the old train station, looking out to the harbour where, possibly, it once resided on a visiting ship. At least that’s what the curator and manager, Zack McLean, tells me.
He’s got lots of interesting info on the history of Owen Sound and what it used to look/feel/sound like. I am mostly interested in the ‘sound-like’ part for this particular visit, and Zack says that the factory whistle used to go off at 9am, 12pm, 1pm and 5pm. But even more than that, it would go off five minutes before noon and before 1pm to signal to factory workers to finish up what they were doing.
It goes off just twice a day now as a loud reminder of the city’s past, but for some, like me and Zack, it still has utility.
“You can always rely on it to know it is now twelve, and it is now five,” he says. “And to be honest, it’s useful for me because I’m the type of person who will occasionally get lost in what I’m doing and then the whistle will go off and I’ll be like ‘already, oh I guess it’s lunchtime.’ It continues to serve its purpose in that regard.”
It’s often referred to as an old train whistle, but it likely came from a steamship; one thing that isn’t up for debate is how loud it is. You’ll definitely hear it if you’re in the city limits, and if you’re actually visiting the tourist centre at noon, then you’ll usually get a heads up from Zack to cover your ears, so it doesn’t give you a heart attack. “I’ve been here for over a year, and sometimes if I’m outside at the wrong time, like right as it goes off, it will still make me jump,” he says.
And regardless of where it originally came from, it was certainly used at the old Black Clawson-Kennedy factory.
“It was actually used before it was BCK back when it was William Kennedy & Sons,” says Zack. “It was installed in the 1940s.”
Kennedy & Sons was one of the longest running companies in Owen Sound. It didn’t originate across from the old train station, but eventually moved there until it ceased operations in the 1990s and was subsequently torn down in the early 2000s. It now sits as a vacant lot by the harbour with rumours of future development.
One thing Zack has learned about his role as ‘keeper of the whistle’ is that people really do pay attention to it, even more than I do. And sometimes, when daylight savings happens on a weekend and he isn’t there to adjust the timing, people will call to complain. “There were six messages left on the phone one weekend saying ‘the whistle went off at the wrong time!’ and ‘better fix that’” he says jokingly.
The only day it doesn’t blow is Sundays, and it doesn’t run actually through the winter season, so you’ll only be hearing it for a couple more weeks. They don’t have a specific date to turn it off – the weather dictates that. Because it’s compressed air now instead of steam, it’ll only make a lame hissing sound if the air’s too cold and that just won’t cut it for the beloved factory whistle.
It’s interesting to see how busy the harbour was back in the days of steam when trains and ships were both frequenting this blue-collar town regularly bringing goods, and coal, and thirsty sailors . I guess the whistle acts as a symbol for that era. “We get a decent number of [visitors] who come and ask about it,” says Zack, who is happy to take visitors for a walk through the city’s past. In fact, a group of five enters the museum as we finish up our chat and Zack introduces himself and begins answering questions.
If you don’t get a chance to hear the whistle before it’s turned off for the season, rest assured – it will come back in the spring. People even contact the museum when the warm weather comes to make sure, and Zack puts their fears to rest by assuring them it’s coming back on.
“It’s a nice way to signal the museum returning to its regular hours again,” he says.
And as for me and my reliance on it for my workdays, I guess I’ll have to find another way to find out when it’s lunch-time and quittin’ time. I’ve been hearing about this thing called a smart phone…
If you want to visit Zack at the Marine & Rail Museum, it’s located at 1155 1st Ave W in Owen Sound.
Words by Jesse Wilkinson
Photos by Jesse Wilkinson, Zack McLean, Melissa Crannie