Last Blast

Pratt_steam_whistlesTonight is New Year’s Eve, and the 50th and final celebration of a Brooklyn tradition:

“Many years ago, I bought a whistle from the Lackawanna Railroad, so I wanted to hear what it sounded like and thought the only time I could make noise was New Year’s Eve,” says Conrad Milster, chief engineer at Pratt Institute Power Plant.

Being discontinued mutually by Pratt Institute & Conrad Milster mainly for lack of appropriate staffing during Christmas break, the 50th and final year of this New Year’s celebration will sound more fun than ever with as many as 15 whistles blowing off steam.

“It just degenerates into the most God-awful shrieking and howling and hooting and clouds of steam and everyone is blowing whistles and having an absolutely grand time,” says Milster.

PrattSteamEngineTurbinesConrad has been Chief Engineer at Pratt since 1958. In that position, he oversees the Pratt Institute’s historic power plant, a visually striking American Society of Municipal Engineers landmark. Built to serve the Institute in 1887, the boilers transitioned from coal to oil apparently some time in September of 1888. Modifications and improvements happened over the years, and this plant has served the school for over 127 years.

PrattSteamEngineASMEcoverIn 1977, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) designated the plant a landmark, an intact example of how we have harnessed fossil fuel to power a school since the nineteenth century. Conrad has been generous with his time and the plant he runs, leading guided tours of the plant for my SUST 401 students, and he has also used the plant to entertain onlookers. My first experience with his steam whistles was not New Year’s Eve, but a mid-afternoon performance in the fall of 2012 to celebration Pratt’s 125 anniversary. It is indeed a tremendous din, a cacophony worthy of ringing in a new year.

It all started roughly 50 years ago, when he bought an old steam whistle and kicked off the New Year’s custom.
“I thought, I’d like to hear what this whistle sounds like,” Milster recalled. “When can I make noise? New Year’s Eve.”

He and a half-dozen buddies hooked up the piping and let it scream at midnight. They liked it so much, they did it again the next year and again, the year after. Crowds came. Old gearheads started offering their own whistles for the chorus.

More than 1,000 people showed up last year, and big crowds are expected for the swan song.

Milster declined to say exactly why the tradition is ending, saying only that “it was decided the whistles will end this year.”

“I’m 79,” he said. “I’ve been working all my life, so maybe it will be nice to take it a little easy on New Year’s Eve.”

And he isn’t sad — not yet, anyway.

“Maybe after we blow the last whistle on New Year’s morning, I’ll get a little nostalgic,” he said.

The calliope, a steam-powered instrument, is a fan favorite at Pratt Institute’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration. Doyle Murphy The calliope, a steam-powered instrument, is a fan favorite at Pratt Institute’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration.

This year’s nine-whistle arrangement includes a siren rescued from the SS Normandie, a doomed French vessel that was the fastest ocean liner in the world until the Queen Mary’s debut in 1936.

The Normandie apparatus, a three-pronged whistle in the center of the arrangement, uncorked a baritone blast on Tuesday as Milster and his crew tinkered with the fittings and valves.

They’ll use a steam-powered organ called a calliope to warm up the crowd starting at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, and the whistle will sound an opening blast at 11:30 p.m. But the real show will begin at midnight exactly.

That’s when Milster will pull the ropes on the valves for the last time, filling the night with sound and clouds of steam.

Pratt is lucky to have Conrad, and I am hoping for good weather so his last blast can be celebrated in style. Here’s to that and to a happy and healthy 2015 for all reading this.

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