An Air Raid Siren A Town Could Love

For decades, an air-raid siren ripped through Steamboat Springs, Colo., every day at 12 sharp. The screeching, 150-decibel siren sent some tourists running for cover, and was removed a couple of years ago when it was in danger of collapse. Though most agree it was annoying, Steamboat Springs residents missed the tradition. Now the city is bringing it back, albeit a softer, mellower version.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Steamboat Springs, Colorado is known for its scenery, skiing, and for many years what was called the noontime whistle. But Colorado Public Radio's Zachary Barr says don't let the word whistle fool you.

ZACHARY BARR: Steamboat's noontime whistle? It was no whistle. It was a screaming air raid siren that cut loose every day at 12:00, right around the time the folks at the town museum were sitting down for a lecture.

(Soundbite of siren)

BARR: The siren used to do more than disrupt local history class. It also sounded whenever there was a fire. But even after the fire department switched to other means of communication, the siren didn't let up. The cluster of mega-phones hung on a pole just behind Jenny Wall's downtown clothing store. She and other Steamboat residents knew the alarm was coming, but tourists did not.

Ms. JENNY WALL: We had a few people say, is there a tornado or what's going on? Oh my gosh, where do we run for cover?

BARR: The alarm's blast was louder than a jet engine - 150 decibels.

Mr. TOD ALLEN: It was loud enough that it hurt.

Mr. TY LOCKHART: You could hear the noon whistle from any place in town

Ms. KATHERINE GOURMLEY: But it did disrupt business, 'cause you couldn't hear anything, you couldn't say anything. If you were on the phone, you had to stop speaking.

Ms. WALL: It definitely got your attention.

BARR: Tod Allen, Ty Lockhart, Katherine Gourmley and Jenny Wall. Their ears -and everyone else's - caught a break a couple of years ago. The city took down the siren. Not because it was too loud but because it was about to fall over. So just like that, the tradition ended. But like the parents of a teenager who leaves for summer camp, residents missed the little guy.

Mr. ALLEN: It was good, it was fun. It was fun. It was a small town for sure.

Mr. LOCKHART: I liked it. It would just ring at noon because that's it had always been.

Ms. GOURMLEY: My kids would always know it was lunchtime when they heard the siren go off. They'd say, mom, time for lunch.

Ms. WALL: And we've missed it and we're glad it's coming back.

BARR: But bringing the whistle back wasn't a simple thing. There were city council meetings, committees, fundraisers - and in the end, the people in charge decided on a new, slightly mellower sound.

I'm standing in parking lot looking up at the new noon whistle. It's on top of a city building, and it should be going off any minute now, any minute.

(Soundbite of horn)

BARR: The new whistle is supposed to sound like a steamboat, and believe it or not, it's a lot quieter than the old one - only around 100 decibels - and it's now a safe distance away from downtown. City officials say they could move it closer or make it louder, if that's what residents really want.

For NPR News, I'm Zachary Barr in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

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