Universal York

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An attempt to make steam whistle music in York 110 years ago


Much has been written over the years about the traditional concert of Christmas carols played each year on the New York Wire Cloth steam whistle, recently moved to Metso. Jim McClure has verified that Karl Smyser originated the concerts in 1925.

That was not, however, the first attempt to play a tune on a York steam whistle. Lila Fourhman-Shaull, Director of Library and Archives at York County Heritage Trust recently shared the following article from the April 13, 1904 York Dispatch:

Big Siren Whistle at Noss Mill Startled Residents by Strange Freak

Everyone in York, knows the big cuckoo, mocking-bird, siren whistle attached to the factory of Herman Noss & Sons. Everyone in York knows that J. V. Sponsler, although a wandering minstrel, is a musician of the first water. Nearly everyone in York knows the aforesaid ear-splitting siren went on a tear this morning and tore the atmosphere into fragments.

Last night Mr. Sponsler was in North York rehearsing for the coming female minstrel entertainment. There were other musicians present at Liberty hall. These taunted Mr. Sponsler regarding his musical abilities.

‘Pshaw!’ exclaimed the latter, ‘you fellows make me think of a lot of kids with tin whistles, as for me I will show you the real thing in the line of musical ability: I will play ‘The Wearing of the Green’ on the Herman Noss whistle at 7 o’clock tomorrow morning.’

‘Do it,’ said the rival musicians, ‘and our hats come off.’

‘I will,’ replied Mr. Sponsler, unconsciously using Chicago’s motto.

Promptly at the time appointed the challenged musician hied him to the factory. Three minutes later men ran hither and thither, heads were thrust out of windows, children cried, dogs barked, and everyone shouted ‘where’s the fire?’

‘Well I did it, didn’t I?’ remarked the triumphant Mr. Sponsler to one of his rivals an hour later.

‘Yes. I guess you did:’ replied the other.’

‘Well I got the first few bars anyway,’ returned the undaunted Sponsler.

‘It sounded like you had a grip on a bar of the whistle lever, and couldn’t leave her go,’ responded the envious rival.

Mr. Sponsler attributed his partial failure to having played himself out at last night’s rehearsal, and thus being too weak to properly manipulate the heavy whistle lever before breakfast. He, however, positively announces he will play ‘America’ on that whistle at 12 o’clock noon on Friday next. A rumor of this having gone forth, several West End residents are preparing to be out of town on the day set.

Incidentally, Mr. Sponsler will play something else than a factory whistle at the firemen’s relief fund entertainment in the Liberty company’s hall at North York on Friday evening next.

I have found no evidence yet that Sponsler ever played America or anything else on a factory whistle again.