Ahhh... the old mill whistle.
Blowing several times a day from Bowater’s Pulp and Paper Mill in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, it sent men to work, children to school and much more. The old, familiar sound was as annoying as it was beautiful.
Back in the 1950s in Corner Brook, all schools - Catholic and public - kept the same hours, largely thanks to the mill whistle and the important role it played in the lives of the townsfolk. The whistle was like an alarm clock that could be heard from miles away. It told folks when to wake up, when to leave for work or school, when it was dinnertime, suppertime, and when it was time to call it a day. Everyone in the town was accustomed to the mill whistle.
To the best of my recollection, the whistle blew eight times a day back in the ’50s. I remember three short whistle blows at 7:45 a.m. to alert the men that they had 15 minutes to get to work. At 8:00 there blew one long blast, signifying the start of the workday - while also serving as a one-hour warning for children starting school by 9:00. It blew again at 12 noon, when men and children headed home to their dinner (often called “lunch” nowadays), prepared by their wives and mothers. Another blast at 12:45 ushered everyone back to work or school - where they were greeted by the 1:00 blast. The 5:00 whistle signalled that the workday was over. I remember watching all the men leaving the mill, heading home in all different directions.
Sometimes, additional blasts were heard throughout the day for various reasons. Back then the town had a volunteer fire brigade, and it was the whistle that alerted them to a fire. The number of times the whistle blew indicated whether fire had broken out in the mill itself or elsewhere in town. The whistle also sounded if someone got lost in the woods.
Every Remembrance Day, November 11, at exactly 11:00 a.m., the whistle blew for 15 seconds, fell silent for 1 1/2 minutes, then blew for another 15 seconds to mark two minutes of silence in honour of the war dead. And every year at midnight on December 31, the whistle blew to mark the beginning of a new year.
I often wondered who blew the mill whistle. As a child I imagined there was a man pulling on a rope, like a bell ringer. Was it a special job for a special person? How did he know how many blasts to blow? How did he find out if someone was lost in the woods? And who got the message to the whistle blower?
I did find out that it was steam that made the whistle sound, but someone had to put a voice to the whistle. And certainly, the whistle did have a voice. It spoke to the people, alerting them to catastrophes and events and bringing order to their daily routine.
And so it stands to reason that over the years, when former townsfolk headed home to Corner Brook for visits, one of the most endearing sounds was the mill whistle. They’d hear that same old, familiar voice speaking to them again. “Hi, remember me? Welcome home, friend.”
I listened for the sound the last time I went “home,” but I didn’t hear the familiar voice welcoming me. It has been silenced; times have changed. The familiar blast of the mill whistle has been posted for posterity on YouTube, however, and it is forever etched in my memory. - Submitted by Bernice McCall, Ottawa, ON