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What happened to the calliopes?

Every so often, Hastings residents get to see a piece of the city’s past floating up and down the river. Before automobiles became the common means of transportation, people traveling to and from Hastings often traveled on the river, on big steamboats that made regular stops at the levee here.

The steamboats don’t stop in Hastings anymore, but they do make somewhat regular appearances on the river.

There are a couple companies that offer Mississippi River cruises on ships that look just like the old steam driven paddlewheel boats. They can occasionally be seen cruising past Hastings on their way to or from St. Paul. One of them, the American Queen, features a calliope, a steam-powered pipe organ that once was a popular addition to paddlewheel boats.

It used to be that anyone along the Hastings riverfront while the boats steamed by could hear the calliope playing, but that’s no longer the case.

Some residents have asked if the reason for the silence is because of a quiet zone ordinance the city established for the trains crossing East Second Street. It’s not.

“The quiet zone is strictly just for railroad traffic,” said City Engineer Nick Egger.

The ordinance tells train engineers that they’re supposed to be silent while moving through downtown Hastings, he explained. Still, that doesn’t mean a train horn will never sound. Engineers still have the discretion to use the horns if they see danger, and they’re obligated to sound the horn in the quiet zone if they see someone too close to the tracks, he said. Riverboat traffic, however, is not governed by the quiet zone at all.

The question of why the calliope doesn’t play anymore has come up periodically at City Hall, said City Administrator Melanie Mesko Lee, but no one there has an answer.

“I am not aware of any local regulation nor jurisdiction that we would have to influence whether music is or is not played,” she said.

The Star Gazette got to talk to Dave Morecraft, the man who built the American Queen’s calliope. He said that the calliope does still play on the steamboat, but that it is usually played when arriving at or departing from a scheduled stop. Whether or not it’s played during the voyage depends on navigation conditions and time of day, he said.

He also said he would contact the person who plays the calliope to see if it would be possible to bring the music back to Hastings.

The American Queen is on its way to St. Paul, and should be in the area Friday or Saturday.