Rice then went to the police to start a petition drive. She promised signatures from “poor and rich alike,” but sent establishment personalities to collect them. Among the endorsees were wealthy hospital superintendents, who lent credence to Rice’s claims to help the sick rather than to punish marine workers. The inspectors were still unmoved.
When Rice finally interviewed some of the tugboat workers, she presented their responses as evidence of wrongdoing rather than as the accounts of workingmen describing their labor. The tugboat captains offered reasonable rationales for sounding whistles. One explained that removing the whistles “would necessitate an extra deckhand to act as messenger to notify the pier hands, besides all the time that would be lost.” Another stated, “We run a risk of losing a whole tide if we do not rouse the crew on the barge.” And yet another, “You must whistle to wake up the crew, which you cannot expect to stay on watch day and night.”
Rice did not relent. She went to maritime academics and higher-ups, who endorsed her and researched her claim. At last, she won a victory: The National Board of Steam Navigation passed a resolution prohibiting unnecessary whistle-blowing. The tugboat workers adhered for a day or two, and then, finding that work became impossible and that the National Board had no way of enforcing the resolution, returned to using the horns as often as they liked.
Rice had had enough. She proposed a law restricting all but a few scenarios in which tugboats can use their whistles, and demanded a standing representative in the Department of Commerce and Labor who would police the waterways for nuisance. In this effort, too, she came away empty-handed.
Finally, in one last-ditch effort, Rice found success. At a meeting of about 10,000 representatives from the transportation industry, the American Association of Masters, Mates, and Pilots passed a resolution ending the use of “indiscriminate and, above all, noisy signaling.” The law was replicated at the federal level under the 1907 Bennet Act, the first antinoise bill ratified by Congress. Rice’s use of the poor and the sick as a tool to pass her legislation played little part in why the authorities finally listened. Researchers had found that the signaling was impacting tugboat navigation, making entering and exiting the harbor confusing and unsafe at night.
Throughout Rice’s entire ordeal, she presented the tugboat workers as personal enemies rather than potential allies. Her plight for quiet was a moral one; as she saw it, the peace had been stolen from her by the mariners. Looking back, she comes off as vindictive and elitist. But unfortunately, her belligerent approach set the stage for subsequent noise-abatement campaigns in cities around the country.
As the historian Emily Thompson explains in her book The Soundscape of Modernity, noise-abatement laws singled out relatively powerless people, those who were seen to impede “the middle-class vision of a well-ordered city.” Among these was the 1908 General Order 47, issued by New York City Police Commissioner Thomas Bingham. It targeted street ruckus rather than port noise: commotion from street vendors, newsboys, tin-can kickers, roller skaters, street musicians, automobile horns, flat-wheeled streetcars, and more. Soon after, laws that banned occupational noises, preventing people from working for a living in order to protect the quietude, appeared in Boston; Little Rock, Arkansas; San Francisco; and elsewhere.