This month’s artifact of the month is our miniature 24-whistle steam calliope, ca 1901. The calliope was invented in 1855 by Joshua C. Stoddard and had its debut in Worcester, Massachusetts on the 4th of July, 1856. It was made to work by having a number of graduated whistles pitched to create the appropriate sound. When the player hit a key, steam would be released into the appropriate whistle to create the desired sound.
The calliope was built in Cincinnati by George Kratz and may very well be the last Kratz steam calliope built by Kratz in existence. This piece comes from a showboat named French’s New Sensation. She was the fifth showboat to bear that name and was built at Higginsport, Ohio in 1901. The calliope was frequently used to announce the showboat’s arrival into town to attract visitors.
New Sensation was owned by Captain Augustus Byron French and his wife, Captain Callie Leach French. Augustus was born November 1, 1832 in Palmyra Missouri and started working on boats as a teenager, doing odd jobs. Unsatisfied with this, Augustus then found work on a showboat, performing and learning the business. Augustus then spent his next several years on dry land, running a magic show and a little grocery store in Waterloo, Ohio. This is where he met Callie, who he married in 1978. Shortly after their marriage they abandoned the circus business and decided to buy a showboat. Callie was just as invested in the business as her husband and became the first woman with a steamboat pilot and captain license, allowing her to operate the showboat and the steamboats the tugged the showboat along. When the showboat was arriving into a town, Callie would put her gloves on and play the calliope to let everyone know they were arriving. Augustus passed away in 1902 and Carrie continued running New Sensation until 1907.
As for the showboat, she was sold in 1918 to Captain J.W. Menke and the Menke brothers who also operated showboats. She continued to tour the rivers until 1930 when she was destroyed in Mound City, Illinois in a storm. It was from the Menke brothers that we purchased the calliope in 1936 for our collection, a very smart move. Visitors can currently see the calliope as it is on display in our A-Z gallery.