Monday, January 1, 2007

Conrad Milster, Steam Whistle Blow, 1997-2007

For the last several years of New Year's Eves, Julie and I have loudly declared that at midnight we would be standing in the cold dark, listening to the thundering honks and hrrms and general blasting of annual steam whistle blow presented on the Pratt Institute campus by the art school's longtime chief engineer. And ever year, we find ourselves at our friend Paul Morris' lowkey New Year Eve's party, mildly drunk and very full from an elaborate pot luck dinner, too lazy to get on the G and ride out to the Pratt Institute for the steam whistles. But this year, nudged along by some friends, we jumped into a cab at 11:40 and made it in time.

The last time I attended was New Year's Eve, 1997. I wrote about Milster, the Chief Engineer of Pratt Institute, for Spike Lee's shortlived Brooklyn Bridge magazine.

***

Conrad H. Milster, chief engineer of the Pratt Institute Power House, is a man given to mechanical gestures. His long arms bend themselves into the shapes of machines as he explains their inner workings, and his permanently oil-darkened fingers seem shaped to grip heavy wrenches. Tall and sandy-haired with graying mutton-chops beneath a short stove-pipe cap, he explains his dedication to the trio of turn-of-the-century steam engines that are his working showpieces: "I am a preservationist of mechanical artifacts. Some people save buildings, with the furniture and lace and all that. I save engines. Today, machinery is buried behind walls, but I have seen machinery that was built to be art."

Milster points from his office on a balcony above the engine room to the smooth swell of iron grooves, known as flukes, that line the crankcase covers of the engine below. "Purely decorative! Without purpose! The Victorians were incapable of making plain machinery. They had a passion for ornateness." A passion Milster shares: "I am a technological Victorian."

Every New Year's Eve, Milster takes his devotion to the beauty of machines and the power of steam beyond the walls of the engine room with a midnight blowing of steam whistles that once signaled hurtling locomotives, ships coming to shore and the changing of the shifts at factories. "When I was a kid growing up in Astoria," Milster says, "the factories--which are all gone now--blew their whistles together every year on New Year's Eve."

Now, just before midnight, Milster's wife, Phyllis, bundled against the cold, takes her position by the main valve of a steam pipe Milster runs onto the campus yard for the occasion. Disappearing into a small cloud of hissing vapor, she releases 120 pounds of pressure into the line. The whistles moan, scream, honk, hiss, and roar, the songs and signals of frigates and ferry boars, a great passenger liner and the iron horses of the New York Central Railroad, a candle factory, a rubber factory, and the Brooklyn-based U.S. Projectile Company.

Milter acquired his first whistle, a rusty five-noter, from the Lackawanna railroad a few years before he began his tenure as a steam engineer at the Pratt power plant in 1958. But he didn't hear his whistle blow until he'd worked there seven years. "The first time I blew my whistle was the year I became chief engineer: New Year's Eve, 1965." These days, Milster is joined every year by a small band of whistle collectors.

"There's an argument among collectors about polishing the whistles," Milster says, showing off his personal collection in his backyard, just off campus. "I look at it from the point of view of achievement." He hefted a small bomb-like whistle from an old ferry boat. "This whistle achieved its distinct patina in seventy-five years. Who am I to take that away? I can't argue with history."

Milster's 1965 whistle blow marked the beginning of a rennaissance for the antique engines that powered it. Built in 1887, the engine room was once the pride of the campus, a place for couples to stroll on a Sunday afternoon. Sitting before a marble control panel beneath the viewing balcony, the engines are lit by 25 tulip-shaped lamps. Steam from three boilers once flowed through a network of pipes into the engines that in turn rotated huge flywheels five feet in diameter. The flywheels conncted to generators that supplied the campus' electricity, and the excess steam flowed through pipes to the dorms, keeping them toasty.

But by the 1950s, the steam engines were no longer needed. When Milster began his life's work as a steam engineer, the viewing windows that surround the room had been blacked over, evidence of an age distinterested in its own machines. Milster's first act as chief engineer, seven years later, was to clean the windows. Then, he installed a three-tiered gilded chandelier, and painted the generator casings red, with ornate gold trim. "The spinning wheel is a primitive urge," he says. "Here in the engine room, you see and hear motion, you smell the oil. The man who ran a steam engine saw how things worked. You were always adjusting the flow, checking the bearings, listening to the sound of the machine. To be a talented engineer, you have to emphathize with the machinery. If you have talent, the aesthetics of a good machine will grow on you."

***

The article went on to describe a New Year's Eve blow, but I'll cut it off here. My impressions, ten years on, are that the particular pleasures of ghost horns and steam clouds rolling into the night air can't -- or shouldn't -- be described in the magazine prose that only hints at Conrad Milster's unaffected devotion to his machines. I recommend attendance; you have a year to make your plans.

(A blogger called "The Real Janelle" offers three photographs of the grittier corners of the Pratt Power House and a short video clip of one of the old engines in motion.)

30 comments:

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This post about the whistle reminds me of the Big Horn, a marvelous project that is one man's response to a horrible car crash years ago that nearly killed him and left him permanently scarred. Hyler Bracey is an irrepressible work in progress and The Big Horn is a monument to one of the most glamorous obsessions ever conceived.

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Jeff Sharlet said...

Thanks for the tip. The Big Horn is fascinating. Funny that the news articles about it on his site don't mention the crash -- that's the most interesting part of it. But the press narrative seems to be only "dare to dream."

Anyway, I'll definitely try to catch this someday.

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The story is hard to find. The site doesn't navigate well, but here is the link.

I would not be aware of Big Horn except for one of my customers, Al Moody, the engineer/mechanic/designer who executed the project. He chatted from time to time about a "parade float" he was working on and I didn't pay much attention. In my imagination I thought of some cheesy vehicle being retrofitted somehow. When he finally got around to mentioning that there was a website, I took a look and got so excited I went the same afternoon to see it in the shop behind Al's house. Wow! I was blown away by what I saw. Al Moody and Hyler Bracey are both obsessive perfectionists.

As I said, you may not want to make a special trip, but if you are traveling through Georgia sometime it would be worth a phone call and a few hours to see it. Come to think of it, the narrativd might not be too far removed from some of the chapters in the Heretic's Bible.

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I worked for Hyler in the 90's at The Atlanta Consulting Group for 8 years, back in the day when Big Horn was merely a pick-up truck with a couple of steam whistles on it - what was the beginning of a wonderful dream come true for Hyler. On occasion, steamboat whistles would be delivered to the office in crates and we would be amazed at what a site they were to see. On a couple of occasions Hyler gave my then 6 year old son a ride in Big Horn, with headphones on because the sound was loud enough to startle anyone. Hyler's life has had many twists and turns and he and his wife Cass have an amazing outlook on life; Hyler's values and integrity have on many occasions assisted me throughout my lfe. He is a wonderful person and a great inspiration.

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Supposedly, Big Horn's origin was a pickup truck with a freighter horn. It was built in Detroit by my buddy's dad, Milo Novak. It was a parade favorite there. Does anyone know how Bracey obtained it?

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What extraordinary coincidence!

I'm cleaning out some old books in the basement and came across a copy of Hyler Bracey's book (Managing from the Heart) I ordered from a second-hand book source back when I saw the Big Horn

Out of curiosity I did a Google search to see what became of him, then a Blog Search. I have no idea what happened to him, but the chance of anyone else seeing this post on this site is too small to imagine!

To answer your question, according to an old newspaper clipping I kept the original "big horn" was indeed a '79 Ford pickup with horns mounted across the top. Bracey bought it in 1990 from a man in Detroit who had advertised it in a magazine.

I recall reading somewhere that he had a great time playing with it, but it was destroyed in a trailer accident soon after he got it. He decided to replace it with a deluxe, original creation which bacame the Big Horn custom-built by Al Moody, a gifted perfectionist whom I met as one of my cafeteria customers.

I'm not likely to return to this comment thread, so if you want to contact me you may do so at hootsbuddy@gmail.com.

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