Lost Song of the Iron Horse

Written by on August 3, 2016 in Southwest Legends - 1 Comment

If the Wild West was explored by the pioneers, it was settled by the railroad. The sound of the iron horse’s whistle echoing across the plains and mountains of the Southwest meant much-needed supplies were coming. If the trains were blocked for some reason, like severe blizzards, which happened in the early 1900s across the Northern Plains, it often meant life or death for the settlers, who hadn’t yet established farms that would feed them.

Back  in 1832, legend says that a stationmaster for the Leicester and Swannington Railway in England, suggested trains be equipped with an audible warning or signaling device. A local musical instrument builder was commissioned to provide a steam-powered whistle, then known as a “steam trumpet”. The horn, or whistle, is activated by pulling a cord that opens a valve directly connected to the steam boiler. Another version of the story says that the Leicester and Swannington opened its railway line with the device already built in.

Train whistles came in all different forms, from high pitched hoots to the deep toned wails of the plains’ engines, and even the multi-toned whistles with five or six different chambers. According to folklore and legend, train whistles were often associated with loneliness or hard luck. The minor chords have melancholy sound and tend to waver in pitch — the resulting cry or wail makes a lonesome sound as it echoes across the landscape. In the early days of the Southwest, the train whistle often indicated the departure of a loved one and the sound was associated with the sadness of saying goodbye.

Today, the sound of an angry car horn is much more common than the lonely wailing cry of the iron horse. However, train whistles were, and still are, used as a means of signaling. The language or code uses different combinations of long and short whistles, each having their own meaning. They are used to pass instructions, as a safety signal, and to warn of impending movements of a train. Even with modern radios, which are used on today’s trains, most of the whistle signals created in the early days of the iron horse are still used:

One Long Blast:
Applying brakes (moving train approaching station stop)
Normal departure from station (stopped train starting up and leaving station)

Three Short Toots:
Backing up (when stationary)

Two Long, One Short, One REALLY Long:
Approaching public crossing (the signal is sounded well before the crossing and the long blast is held until the train engine is through the crossing point). This signal may be repeated several times. It is the most recognized of all of the whistle codes.

One Really Long Blast:
Approaching stations, junctions, or crossing
Running (not stopping) through a station
Approaching a stop signal on

Six or More Short Toots:
Livestock or people seen on the track ahead

One Long and Two Short:
The next signal is important

One Short and One Long:
Inspect train for leaks or bad brakes

Two Long and One Short:
The train is approaching a meeting or waiting point

A great place to hear the whistle codes at work and see great scenery is on any of today’s fantastic tourist trains of the Southwest:

For more information on whistle codes you can visit Wikipedia:

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