New Year’s Eve at the Pratt Institute steam whistles (all photographs by the author unless noted)
At midnight in Brooklyn on New Year’s Eve, the deafening blare of steam whistles salvaged from lost ships, retired trains, and closed factories shuddered through the crowd gathered for the final hurrah of the 50-year tradition. A huge cloud of steam engulfed the revelers who uncorked champagne bottles or just screamed joyously against the roar. Since 1965, Pratt Institute’s Chief Engineer Conrad Milster has staged this unique ritual of welcoming the new year with the bone-jarring whistles, but as the clock ticked over to 2015, the tradition ended.
The 2014 New Year’s Eve was announced as the final sounding of the whistles at Pratt Institute. Milster told Atlas Obscura he hopes that the whistles, as well as other retrotech marvels he’s collected at his home on campus, find their way to a museum or other place where they can continue to be shared with the public. He noted that the ongoing spectacle has been an important meet up for a group of aficionados and collectors of steam technology, once the driving force of the 19th century.
Sounding of the whistles (photograph by Mark Roberts)
Conrad Milster with the steam whistles (photograph by Sam Stuart for Pratt Institute)
Preservation of sound isn’t something that’s often considered, but listening to the incredible blast of the whistles screeching and bellowing at once, I was reminded that these noises were once a regular part of the industrial world, especially New York City where steamships in the harbor called day and night. Now even if you see the old technology in a museum, you rarely get to experience it up close. Milster’s office at Pratt is right in the steam engine room, which powered the college campus until 1977. Now an art-focused school, Pratt started as an institution of engineering. Milster is one of just four chief engineers to ever work at Pratt, and along with a small colony of cats that sleep in the warm corners of the two-level room, keeps the antique red-painted machines churning away in beautiful condition.
Over the years the cacophony has altered a bit; a homemade steam calliope was introduced in 1999, hooked up to a keyboard and able to play prerecorded airy tunes like a slightly off-key “You’re a Grand Old Flag” or have players lead a sing-a-long to “Auld Lang Syne.” And other collectors brought their own whistles salvaged or bought on eBay, sometimes hearing them for the first time through the 250-pound pipes that connect the whistles to the Pratt boilers. Others were regulars, like the powerful whistle from the SS Normandie — a magnificent French ocean liner that caught fire and sank in the Hudson River.
The steam engine room
The end of the steam whistles at Pratt was a decision reported in 2013. Held during holidays, all the labor to work the whistles that weigh between 20 and 150 pounds has been volunteer, and officials at Pratt had previously given concerns about safety and insurance as the crowds grew each year. Yet even as word about the event got out and attracted a broader audience outside of its Clinton Hill neighborhood, it still felt like an underground wonder that despite all the development in New York evoked a century long gone.
New Year’s in New York might be defined for much of the world by the raucous festivities of Times Square, but here something as simple as one man sharing his obscure collection became just as important a tradition for the city. Long after the last sonic blast after midnight, people still lingered late in the engine room with its Christmas lights draped above rotating machines, where down below Milster in his railroad engineer’s hat talked with an endless stream of enthusiastic fans who seemed reluctant to let the night go.
Blasting the whistles at midnight
Conrad Milster controlling the steam pipe
Awards given to the engine room cats
The engine room
Office of Conrad Milster
The engine room
A miniature steam engine
The steam calliope
Listening to the steam calliope (photograph by Sam Stuart for Pratt Institute)
The steam whistles (photograph by Mark Roberts)
In the steam cloud (photograph by Mark Roberts)
The steam whistles on their last night at Pratt (photograph by Mark Roberts)
Anyone wishing to honor Conrad Milster’s steam whistles tradition is invited to donate to a scholarship fund set up in honor of his late wife through Pratt’s secure online giving page. Indicate the Phyllis and Conrad Milster Endowed Scholarship under Special Instructions.