New York Wire factory whistle concert: ‘We’d stand out on our driveway to hear it’
Young Don Ryan practices on the New York Wire Cloth factory steam whistle with his father, Marlin Ryan, in the 1950s. Don inherited the title of whistlemaster from his father and now his own sons are apprenticing to play the early Christmas Day concert. Background posts: World War II-era air raid siren discovered atop Yorktowne Hotel, Musical factory whistle drowns out N.Y. Wire’s WWII feats and The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument.
Whistlemaster Don Ryan’s enthusiasm for his instrument – the factory whistle at New York Wire Cloth -impressed his audience at a York County Heritage Trust presentation on Saturday.
He explained the ins and outs of the century-plus-old whistle with an adjustable valve that permits him to play carols shortly after midnight on Christmas Day each year.
That concert draws hundreds of people – maybe even thousands – to the East Market Street area of York. That part of town simply bustles.
So, why not hold a mid-summer concert and play patriotic songs? …
He said he would be open to a second yearly concert and noted that such a show costs $7,500, mostly underwriting the portable boiler that produces the steam that powers the whistle.
Surely, such a concert would draw enough people to York to cover those costs in city restaurants. Or hold a concert after a York Revs baseball game. Make it a factory whistle night, instead of a fireworks night. Or make it the crowning point of the Mother’s Day Street Fair.
A York Daily Record/Sunday News account of Ryan’s presentation follows:
In days gone by, factory steam whistles were used to alert employees to the start and end of a work day.
But when Don Ryan gets his hands on the whistle at the New York Wire Co. in York, he creates music.
“The community wants it, and I love doing it for the community,” said Ryan, who is also known as the whistle master.
Since 1955, the Ryan family has been performing nearly every Christmas. On Saturday, Ryan provided a little insight into the unusual instrument during the Holiday Family Fun Day sponsored by the York County Heritage Trust at the Agricultural and Industrial Museum of York County.
The event also featured demonstrations, guided tours and activities, said Daniel Roe, the museum’s educator.
Ryan’s father, Marlin Ryan, spearheaded the family’s involvement in the whistle after a man who previously played the whistle passed away.
New York Wire’s whistle has been used to produce music since the late 1880s. Back then, it wasn’t uncommon to hear songs coming from steam whistles across the country.
“They were played all over the countryside at one time,” Don Ryan said.
All the songs played by the Ryans have had to be rewritten from the standards to fit being played on a whistle.
Musical notes are produced by injecting steam into the whistle and sliding a piston to certain levels to hit different notes — much like a slide whistle.
At least four people are needed to put on the concert. A family member guides Don Ryan through the charted notes, while another family member releases steam into the whistle. Behind the scene, someone maintains the oil-fed boiler that produces the steam.
Don Ryan’s son, Scott Ryan, recently had a go at playing the whistle.
“When I get to a point, I’ll hand it over to him and he’ll do it,” Don Ryan said.
Like many other local families, York Township residents Norma and Gene Shue have made the whistle an annual tradition.
After attending Christmas Eve church services, the Shues would drive into York for the concert with their children. If for some reason the family couldn’t make it into the city, all they had to do was to stand in front of their home, then in East York.
“We’d stand out on our driveway to hear it,” Norma Shue said.
BY THE NUMBERS
7: The number of tons of coal once needed to fuel the boiler to create steam for just two rehearsals and a concert each year.
5: Usually, the radius, in miles, from the New York Wire Co. in York that you can hear the carols. However, when it’s windy, the whistle can be heard up 12 miles away.
134.1: The maximum decibel level of the whistle at 23 feet way. By comparison, a jet engine at the same distance hits 115 decibels.
15: The length of the whistle, in inches. It is roughly 51/8 inches in diameter.
Source: Don Ryan
KEEP THE WHISTLE ALIVE
The annual concert is funded by a number of area companies and individuals. Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to Steam Whistle Concert Fund, c/o PeoplesBank, 48 E. Market St., York 17401.
For a list of upcoming events or more information about the York County Heritage Trust and its museums, check out www.yorkheritage.org or call 848-1587.