Friday, March 27, 2009

Robert Swanson's Magnificant Air Horns!

Port Townsend, today. Whilst working on an upcoming presentation, I tripped over this fantastic piece of video from “Double Ditch Light” Productions.

Shot at one of my favorite places along the old Pacific Great Eastern, Howe Sound. Check out the echo of those fantastic five-chime Swanson AirChimes (K5H) on the pointy end of a BC Rail train heading south along the Sound. Those were the “signature” horns of BC Rails progenitor, Pacific Great Eastern.

In a few minutes they will be passing Horseshoe Bay, site of a large BC Ferries Terminal serving the Sunshine Coast, Gulf Islands, and Vancouver Island. In the morning, when things are getting into gear, as many as three huge car ferries are loading at the same time! You got to be wide awake following lane assignments to get on the correct boat, and some of the ferries, like this one, load two decks simultaneously, with trucks, buses, RV's and cars on the main deck, cars only on the second deck (look closely - you can see the second deck load.)

Listen carefully to the first blast, about 35 seconds into this video. This horn brings back memories of the PGE that were long forgotten – I love it! The Swanson air horn was most haunting, especially in the Canyon country of B.C. The echoes, especially in the early evening made the little fuzzies on my forearm stand straight up!

Robert Swanson’s zenith was the creation of an air horn, which plays the first four musical notes of the Canadian National Anthem, “O Canada!” The horn was built for the Centennial of Canada. The air horn is mounted atop Canada Place on the Vancouver waterfront, and blows every day at noon! A smaller version was made for the locomotive pulling the Confederation Train all over Canada in 1967, and can be heard on this link.

October 4, 1994, Robert Swanson passed away at the age of 88. An obituary notice read, in part, as follows:

What a great deal of noise he made! In the 1940s, Swanson invented the Nathan-AirChime horn for trains. Nathan-AirChime got its start in1949. Before the early 1950s, locomotive horns were usually a single discordant honk or hoot. Swanson set out to devise an air horn that would sound - with an adjustable chord and combination of trumpets – that could closely reproduce the traditional steam whistle.

Swanson worked with the U.S. Navy Band at Annapolis to develop frequencies that would make the horn distinguishable from truck horns, thereby reducing possible confusion by motorists, but still able to be heard inside an automobile.

Swanson designed the horns that at noon blare out over Vancouver the first four notes of “O Canada!” mimicking the sound of the Royal Hudson steam train. Along the way, he wrote poetry based on his days as a B.C. logger, and tales he heard from other loggers. Two collections, Rhymes of a Western Logger and Whistle Punks & Widow-Makers, were best sellers. He was born October 26, 1905 in Reading, England.”

The “O Canada!” horns - a daily tradition since 1967 - were moved from the old B.C. Hydro Building to Canada Place on the Vancouver waterfront, and first tested there on October 13, 1994.

The test was timed to coincide with a memorial service for Swanson, the horns’ designer, who had died October 4.

3 Comments - Click here:

SDP45 said...

Those are some very nice horns, indeed! The horns on some of the newer BNSF power I hear nearby are also very nice. I have no idea what they currently are using.


LinesWest said...

They sound great, makes me miss the old BCR from my days growing up around Vancouver. Thanks for the memory - Leland

Brian said...

Robert Swanson, engineer and poet, is a hero of mine. He made a living doing what he loved and made the world a safer and more interesting place in the process. I have a picture of him at the Whistle Farm on my PC desktop.

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