The UW’s Loudest Sound

The steam whistle signals boaters while startling Terrace crowds.

Steam whistle blows during sunset at the Terrace

The steam whistle’s mournful sound announces the end of the day or the arrival of dangerous weather. Jeff Miller

As UW traditions go, this one really blows.

Anyone who has spent an evening on the Terrace will remember the loud, mournful sound of the steam whistle, announcing the end of the day or the arrival of dangerous weather. The whistle has been singing its sad song above the Terrace since 1987, though it’s actually decades older.

The whistle is attached to the Lake Safety Tower (or “sail tower”), a gift to the university from the Class of ’32. That tower is located on the northeast corner of Helen C. White Hall, so it’s not actually part of Memorial Union. Powered by steam from the university’s heating system, the whistle is operated by the UW Police Department’s Lake Rescue and Safety (LRAS) unit. On a day with calm weather, an automatic timer sounds Ol’ Steamy for seven to 10 seconds exactly an hour before the lifesaving station wraps up its workday, as a signal calling all those who have rented boats from Hoofers to return to shore.

“They need to be back 15 minutes before we close,” says Sean Geib ’97 of the UW’s Lifesaving Station.

When the National Weather Service sends a warning to say that severe weather is imminent — or when there’s lightning over Lake Mendota — a member of LRAS sounds the whistle manually in three short blasts. This is meant to give a more urgent signal to get off the water.

The sail tower is not the steam whistle’s original location. It used to be on the Old Boat House, which stood where the Martin and Florence Below Alumni Center is today. And it wasn’t only used for lake safety. In the 1940s and 1950s, one of its chief functions was to announce curfew to the UW’s female students, ordering them to return to their residence halls. To them, presumably, the whistle’s note sounded even sadder.

Published in the Fall 2021 issue

Tags: Campus buildings, Campus history, Lake Mendota, Terrace

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