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'A warp and two woofs': The keeper of Washington ferries' sonic history

Courtesy of Jessica Spring
Pacific Lutheran University
A printing of the Kalakala, made with a plate from another one of Thorniley's collections - the Thorniley Collection of Antique Type.


In the first half of the 20th century, before Washington state took over most of the region’s ferry lines, there was a signature sound you would hear as ferry boats came in to dock. 


And it had a name. 


“A warp and two woofs, it’s a long and two shorts,” says Alan Stein, a historian at the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, Historylink. 


The horn blasts varied a bit, depending on the mood and tastes of the boat’s captain. Stein says it was a little like music, but also like a language, to those who could understand it. That included ferry captains, dock workers… and a guy named William Thorniley.


"He could stand there on the waterfront, and say, ‘That’s captain so-and-so coming in on the Chetzemoka,’ or ‘Oh yeah, that’s this other captain and that ferry is the Kalakala.’ He was actually able to tell, just based on those sounds, which captain and which ferry boat it was,” Stein said. 

Thorniley was the publicist for the Black Ball Line, the company that owned all the ferries at that time. And to him, these sounds mattered a lot. They were so meaningful, in fact, that Thorniley accumulated an unparalleled collection of ferry horn recordings. 

These days, those recordings offer a unique window into the history of this watery region. Click “listen” above to hear the full story.


Posey Gruener is a former KNKX producer who worked on All Things Considered and Sound Effect.

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