Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Mill Whistle Project

Many people have heard me talking about the Corner Brook mill whistle. I've always been fond of it and certainly have missed it living away all these years. Growing up on Atlantic Avenue, it was part of my everyday life for 17 years. But my passion for it really didn't develop until there was an attempt to silence it. That was four years ago now. I was living in St. John's and my mother commented to me one day during our usual marathon phone conversation that the mill whistle was no more. Having just read R. Murray Schafer's book on soundscapes, I found myself reflecting on his notion of soundmark (a play on the term "landmark") and my investigation into just what was going on in Corner Brook began in earnest.

I found that in August 2007 the mill whistle mysteriously disappeared from the soundscape of Corner Brook. It was first reported as temporary, but as weeks passed community members began to speculate that it may not return. Individuals and groups called for its reinstatement. It sounded on November 11th in honour of Remembrance Day, but then disappeared again. Finally, on December 6, 2007, the mill whistle returned, but only at half its previous frequency.

For the next few years, in my free time I would pick away at the project -- searching the Western Star for references to the whistle, reading about how it has been used by the broader community through time, asking my mother and my friends about their memories of it, and trying to make the case for it and its related folklore, literature, and music to be documented and preserved for the future. You see, I believe that in the near future, the whistle will be lost and when that happens, a special way of knowing and being in Corner Brook will be lost with it.

Fortunately, in April 2011 the project was funded by the Institute for Social and Economic Research at Memorial University. After ethics review, paperwork to establish a research account, moving to a new university, and getting settled in a new home, I was finally ready to begin the project in October 2011. Having relocated to Cape Breton for a job, I knew that I would need to hire a research assistant who would bring the right sensibilities to the project and was well-placed within the Corner Brook network. Following a few emails and instant messages over BBM, Ryan David Butt agreed to work on the project. As Remembrance Day was quickly approaching, we decided to focus our efforts on documenting the role that the mill whistle plays in remembrance (more about that in the next post), but over the next several months there will be an electronic survey, interviews, a visit to Grand Falls to learn how life has changed now that their mill whistle is no more, and further archival research. We also plan to record the mill whistle from several different locations in Corner Brook, since the actual sound of the whistle and its echo changes based on the surrounding landscape.

The questions this project will seek to answer are:
1) how is this whistle unique to Corner Brook?
2) how different does the whistle sound depending on where you are in the city?
3) what are the sonic boundaries of the mill whistle?
4) how do the sounds of the mill interact with and/or impact the surrounding natural environment and other industrial/mechanical sounds?
5) what do these sounds of industry mean to the people of Corner Brook?
6) what would be the long-term effects should the whistle be silenced for a more substantial length of time, or if the mill were to shut down for good?
7) will references to the whistle in literature and song still resonate with the people 20 years from now?
8) how will daily lives and special moments, such as Remembrance Day, change if the mill whistle disappears?
9) how does the mill whistle reflect a community character and how might that change in the future?
10) should the mill whistle be preserved? and, if so, how?

If you would like to participate in this research or you simply want to share a memory or thought about the whistle (good or bad!), please don't hesitate to get in touch at

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