Long-dormant whistles once were a vital part of everyday life at D-3

They are often overlooked today, relics of a bygone time. But in another era they may have been as critical to ITD as the working men and women and the equipment they used to build and maintain highways.

One hangs inside at ITD's Southwest Idaho maintenance shop, and the other is mounted on the roof.

Although the whistles have not been used for work in decades, at one time they were used extensively and served a critical daily function.

Elden Dormier, who has spent considerable time in the shop since starting with ITD in 1957, said the whistles were in place when he began work, and likely were installed when the shop was built in the current location a few years earlier. The old shop was just south of Main and 27th streets in Boise.

Dormier said the whistle mounted on the roof was intended to serve as an air raid or emergency siren, warning the public in the event of a military or other public emergency.

“It was meant to warn you to get out of the building ASAP,” explained Rich Rabe, shop manager.

Marvin Kerns, who was shop foreman from 1958 to 1987, said the whistle on the roof also was intended to dispatch folks to “designated spots in the yard where they would get hoses and carts to fight fires on the premises.”

In those situations, he said, two men would grab each cart and one would grab the hose.

Dormier said the whistle inside was used for an equally important function – to signal the start and end of work breaks.

“They rang it at 8 a.m. to start work, at 9:30 a.m. for coffee break, 9:45 to go back to work, at noon for lunch break, at 1 p.m. to go back to work, in mid-afternoon for a break, and at 5 p.m. when it was time to go home,” he said.

ITD’s District 3 engineer Dave Jones, who recently discovered the whistles, said the inside whistle is a four-barreled copper or brass unit in the “light” section on the west side of the shop. It has a semi-chord medium octave sound. He said the other is a small barrel unit on top of the roof above the inside whistle, and it is loud enough to be heard all around the yard, with more of a baritone sound.

Jones said he was testing them the other day, and stopped because although the "break" whistle didn't garner much attention, the booming baritone of the "air raid" whistle was enough to cause panic in the maintenance men who had worked there long enough to know what it meant.

The whistles, no longer used for their original intent, remain a part of ITD’s rich heritage.

Note: If you have information about other vignettes from ITD history, please share them with colleagues by sending details to The Transporter.

Published 1-27-2012