Teach PA History
Whoo-oo! Whoo-oo!
Equipment & Supplies
  • Musical instrument (e.g., train whistles, empty soda bottle, kazoo, recorder)

Ask students if they can guess how many miles of railroad tracks there are in the United States. Hundreds? Thousands? Tell them 200,000 miles (according to the Operation Lifesaver, Inc. website statistics)! That is a long way. To put the distance in perspective, tell students if you lined up the railroad tracks straight, they would almost reach the moon (87% of the distance from the earth to the moon).

Ask students what they should do if they come to railroad tracks or hear a train whistle or horn. Discuss with students the rules of safety regarding train equipment and railroad tracks. Be certain students understand that they should:

  1. Never trespass on railroad property (Railroad tracks, trestles, yards, and equipment are all private property.)

  2. Cross tracks ONLY at designated pedestrian or roadway crossings. Never walk down a train track, even if the track looks rusted and unused.

  3. Obey all railroad warning signs (e.g., crossing gates, flashing red lights)

  4. Never be near a train unless accompanied by a railroad employee authorized to guide them.

  5. Protest to anyone and everyone if they are in a vehicle that races a train to a crossing or dodges the lowered crossing gates!

Operation Lifesaver, Inc. is a non-profit organization which you may wish to reference as you discuss safety rules. They are dedicated to preventing collisions, injuries, and fatalities on railroad property, and they offer helpful classroom activities and specific rail facts related to safety such as:

  1. The typical train with 100 railcars is 6,000 tons. Or, if you scale it down and think about its weight relative to a car: the car is as heavy as a can soda, the train as heavy as a car. (Heavier objects are harder to stop once they are moving.)

  2. Trains cannot stop quickly. It takes a 100-car freight train traveling at 55 miles per hour over a mile (approximately 18 football fields) to stop.

Once you feel students understand these basic railroad safety rules, show them the Train Whistle Photograph. Ask them:

  • What is this a picture of? (Train whistle.)

  • Have they ever heard a train whistle?

  • Why do they think trains have whistles? What function/purpose does the train whistle have?

Explain to student that train whistles have many functions. Can they be used for safety? Absolutely. They are warnings that a train is coming and you should not be anywhere near a track. They are also like a secret, coded language. Tell students they will soon be able to decode and understand some of signals. Whistle codes are used to indicate the train's actions (moving forward, crossing road, stopping, etc.) and to give warnings to the public.

Demonstrate the sound made by two different train whistles. Have one student blow one whistle and return it to you. Then ask a second student to blow a different whistle. Ask the class:

Did both whistles sound exactly the same? What was different?

Explain how the whistles make the same "note" only the pitch–the highness or lowness of the note–is slightly different. Tell students that train whistles were unique. A few people, those select few who were extremely familiar with trains and their sounds and could hear and identify pitch, could even tell which train was coming based on the pitch of the sound! But many people–even those not gifted with being able to figure out different pitches–knew what certain whistle signals meant.

Gather the students in a circle to tell a story. It is a true story of one of the most celebrated uses of a locomotive whistle in Pennsylvania history–a prolonged, shrill warning to railway workers, passengers in stalled trains, and residents of Conemaugh during the 1889 Johnstown Flood. John Hess, the engineer of a Pennsylvania Railroad work train on that fateful May 31, 1889, is the hero at the center of a remarkable story told by David G. McCullough in his award-winning The Johnstown Flood. The essence of the story line is found in Student Handout 1: The Whistle Broke into a Scream.

Before beginning your reading ask for three volunteers to help you read this. You will need someone to be: John Hess, John Hess's conductor, and a railroad yard superintendent.

During the story point out the map showing how far the water traveled from the lake to Johnstown using Handout 2: Map of the Flood Route. Have students identify key locations: Conemaugh Lake, South Fork Dam, Little Conemaugh, East Conemaugh, Conemaugh River, Stony Creek, and finally Johnstown. Ask them why Johnstown was so heavily hit by the flood? (Location. Johnstown is situated where the Little Conemaugh and Stony Creek meet to form the larger Conemaugh River) Then show the Photograph of Flood Destruction.

Model for your students common locomotive whistle/horn blasts found in Handout 3: Whistle code. (Train whistles can be easily purchased at or other online stores.) If you cannot find a train whistle, empty "pop" bottles will also work. These are combinations of short and long blasts–just like the Morse Code "language" which was adapted for this need.

As a final assessment, distribute Worksheet 1: Practicing Railroad Knowledge and Safety. This worksheet presents an opportunity for your students to show an understanding of both safety rules and whistle codes.

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