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Pratt Institute steam whistle tradition ended

Steam dunked: Pratt whistles go silent after final New Year’s blast

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Tooting his horns: Conrad Milster, Pratt Institute’s longtime chief engineer, opened 2015 by playing his collection of antique steam whistles in public for the last time.

Pratt Institute’s chief engineer blew off some steam for the last time on New Year’s Eve.

Conrad Milster has been tooting in the new year with his collection of antique steam whistles since 1965, but the devices have gone silent after one last blowout to usher in 2015. The longstanding ritual grew out of Brooklyn pride, Milster explained.

“The attitude was, ‘Screw Times Square,’ ” he said. “We have our own tradition, our own thing.”

Bigwigs at the art and architecture school said they ended the festivities because they do not have enough staff while the campus is closed for the holidays. A school spokeswoman said that the crowds coming to see the whistles blow have grown in recent years and that administrators and Milster agreed at the beginning of 2014 that this would be the last year. In late 2013, Pratt officials told the New York Times they were discontinuing the event for safety and insurance reasons.

The first whistle of Milster’s collection came from a Lackawanna Railroad locomotive. He found it shortly after taking the reins as chief engineer, which put him in charge of the campus’s heating system and engine room. Wanting to hear the sound for himself, he rigged the device to a steam-pipe in one of the buildings, gathered a half-dozen friends, and let ’er rip to mark the beginning of 1966, and of an enduring habit.

He started collecting the whistles, eventually acquiring 15 of different shapes, sizes, and pitches. The deepest-sounding one is five feet long, and the heaviest weighs 600 pounds, he said.

“It was like a hobby,” Milster said. “The more you got into it the more you learned about them.”

At the start of the new millennium, Milster rigged up a calliope, the instrument favored by steamboat operators, which connects an array steam-whistles to a keyboard.

He brought the calliope and nine whistles to the final celebration, and said he is sad to permanently shelve them.

“It’s very nostalgic and a little heartbreak­ing,” he said.

Part of the grief stems from the role Milster’s wife used to play in the process. Phyllis Milster worked for Pratt from the late 1960s until 2004 and lived with him in a house on campus. She always had the most important job on New Year’s, he said.

“My wife was as much a part of this as anyone else,” Milster said. “She was in charge of the main steam valve. No one else was allowed near it.”

Phyllis Milster died in 2011, and to honor her memory, Conrad created a scholarship fund at the school. Now, with the steam whistles going dormant, the fund will be the only public reminder of her.

“Every year we would put it away for the next year,” Milster said of his steam collection. “I’m putting all this stuff away this time and I don’t know when it’ll come back out.”

Reach reporter Matthew Perlman at (718) 260–8310. E-mail him at mperlman@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjperlman.
Keyboard to the castle: Conrad Milster’s steam whistle collection includes 15 antique whistles and this here calliope.
Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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