Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Shift Whistles

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Antique Steam Whistle, Public Domain (via Wikipedia)

When I was growing up in Youngstown, days were broken into three parts, basically first or day shift (7 am to 3 pm), second or afternoon shift (3 pm to 11 pm) and third or night shift (11 pm to 7 am). We lived close enough to the mills that we could hear the shift whistles announcing the start of one shift and the end of another. When I was in elementary school and the weather was warm and the windows open, 3 pm shift whistle told us we had just 15 minutes before the school bell would ring the end of the day. The 7 am whistle was a good wake up call. The 11 pm whistle was a reminder at a certain point in my teen years that if you were out, it was time to be home. (Remember the TV ads that solemnly pronounced: “It is 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”). The whistle sounded something like this.

The cover article in the current issue of YSU Magazine, Youngstown State’s alumni magazine, brought back this childhood memory. A team of five Mechanical Engineering Technology students have reproduced the steam-powered stainless steel shift whistle, similar to those used in steel mills, to be used at YSU football games as a “spirit” whistle. It sounds in the note of C and in tests has been heard clear across town. It will be mounted at the south end of Stambaugh Stadium.

Shifts were not always eight hours. At one time, they could be twelve hours but with the efforts of unions, mills gradually went from two to three shifts. It was optimal to run around the clock, and economic times had to be hard to lay off a shift.

Most people didn’t like working the night shifts. You just couldn’t sleep as well during the day, yet, because of the dangers of steel-making, you need to be alert at night. Studies show that more accidents, work place errors, and a variety of health issues from higher alcohol use to heart disease and cancer may be related to night work. Similarly, while guys liked the extra money of over-time, when they could get it, this also is hard on health. It seems like most of the dads who worked in the mill in our neighborhood tended to work days. They’d often stop at one of the bars near the mills and you’d see them between 4 and 5 pm, in time for dinner.

One of my family members worked for a time in the mills at Republic Steel, and being low in seniority, he worked a number of nights. I remember going with dad sometimes on Friday nights when we were allowed to stay up late to drop our family member off at the mill and being in awe of how the mills lit the night sky and the size of the blast furnaces up close.

The passage of time across the Mahoning Valley is not marked by shift whistles these days. Shift work goes on in factories and places like hospitals. But on Saturday home games each fall, a sound many of us grew up hearing every day will remind us to root for our YSU Penguins and call back the memories of the past, and maybe memories of anticipating dad’s or an older sibling’s arrival home.

4 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Shift Whistles

  1. I appreciate a post from one of my readers on Facebook who reminded me that at many factories, shifts were referred to as “turns,” which my wife confirmed was what her father called them at General Fireproofing. For example, most people preferred not to work on night turn.

  2. The Ohio Leather Works in Girard had a large and powerful steam whistle,mounted up high on one of the smoke stacks . That whistle would scare many an unsuspecting driver on Rt.#422,or N.State Street.

  3. Growing up in the Lansingville area (right behind Woodside Receiving Hospital, where I would later work) I clearly heard the whistles. After graduation from Wilson in ’65 I went to work in Republic Steels Coke Plant. That’s when I learned that those whistles signaled many things besides change of shift. Each part of the plant had it’s own whistle. Depending on the pattern, they could signal change of shift or Foreman Needed or Millwright Needed or the worst – Accident with injury. Two summers in the Coke Plant convinced me to finish my degree at YSU.

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