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Whistle Blast Recalls 75th Anniversary of SS Normandie's Maiden Voyage

By Julie Shapiro

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

LOWER MANHATTAN — The penetrating blare of a foghorn reverberated through the South Street Seaport Thursday afternoon to mark the 75th anniversary of the SS Normandie’s arrival in New York Harbor.

The sound came from the original brass steam whistle once mounted on the Normandie, a luxury Art Deco ocean liner that boasted famous passengers including Ernest Hemingway. On June 3, 1935, thousands of New Yorkers greeted the Normandie at the end of its record-breaking maiden voyage from France.

To celebrate the anniversary, Con Edison connected the 600-pound whistle to below-ground steam pipes on Fulton Street to enable it to sound its warning once again.

“Be ready to cover your ears, because it’s going to be very loud,” said Ed Foppiano, chief mechanical engineer with Con Edison.

The crowd of tourists and maritime history buffs backed up a few steps, and then Foppiano and leaders of the South Street Seaport Museum stepped forward to pull the cord that opened the steam valve.

Swirling clouds of steam poured upward as the whistle emitted a low, long rumble and spurted cool water on those who stood nearby. Foppiano released the cord and then pulled it again for three short blasts.

“The Normandie sails again!” said Bill Miller, who is curating an exhibit on the Normandie at the South Street Seaport Museum.

Maria Smith, 50, a Battery Park City resident, said the whistle’s blast reminded her of her father, who was a sea captain on an oil tanker.

“It brought back such nostalgia for me — wonderful memories,” Smith said. “This is the best thing that’s happened all summer.”

The whistle gave off a deep, vibrating rumble but did not carry very far, partly because of all the other noise in the Seaport.

Bill Karcher, 45, left his office in the Financial District to listen to the whistle, which he said was historically significant, but he missed it because he was out on Pier 17, a few blocks away, when it happened.

“I wish I could have heard it,” Karcher said.

The last time the Normandie whistle sounded in the Seaport was 25 years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the ship’s arrival in New York.

Conrad Milster, chief engineer at the Pratt Institute, restored the whistle back then and still cares for it at Pratt’s Brooklyn campus.

Milster collects old steam whistles, drawn to the way they can transport listeners back in time.

“The furniture on the Normandie was magnificent, but you can’t sit on it,” Milster said. “Whereas if you hear this whistle and close your eyes, you’re on the ship.”