York Town Square

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The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument

A boiler malfunction caused the cancellation of the York-area annual steam whistle concert in 2005.
But all is not lost. More on that in a moment.
New York Wire Co.’s boiler lost pressure right before the December 2005 show. Steam from the boiler, regulated with an unusual slide on the whistle, enables whistlemasters to play Christmas carols every year.
Some residents are going through withdrawal, but help is on the way. A CD titled “Factory Steam Whistle, New York Wire Co.” is available at York’s Borders Books.
The CD jacket claims the whistle plays the world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument. Its sounds can be heard as far away as 10-12 miles when the weather is right.
The CD, dedidated to longtime whistlemaster Marlin L. Ryan, contains Christmas standards: “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.”
Another historical note not found on the CD jacket: The whistle was used as part of the civilian defense alert system during World War II. In those days, any whistle that was loud and could play different notes — such qualities were scarce in whistles of the day — proved valuable in alerting the public.
The whistle returned in 2006. For photo and story, see whistle workers.
And, there’s more… .

From Joe Maldonado’s Daily Record/Sunday News story, 12/28/05:
For almost eight decades, Jean Bressler of York has listened for the sound that announces the arrival of Christmas: the steam whistle carols coming from the New York Wire Co.
This year, he listened well past the traditional start time of 12:15 a.m. before concluding around 12:30 that the songs were not going to be played this year.
“It was a terrible let down,” Bressler, 86, said Tuesday. “It just didn’t feel like Christmas.”
Though no one seems to know exactly how long the steam whistle has played carols in York, a popular estimate is that it started around 1925 by a York music teacher named Karl Alex Smyser.
Today, the Christmas concert is performed by Don Ryan, who took over the responsibility from his father, Marlin Ryan. Don Ryan is teaching son Scott Ryan of Shippensburg to play the whistle, too.
Christmas Eve morning, Ryan could be heard for miles practicing for the big show. But just before that show was to begin, the boiler that powers the whistle lost pressure.
“There was steam going everywhere, and the oil burner was making a heck of a racket,” Don Ryan said Tuesday.
A team of company boiler experts arrived with massive wrenches ready to fix the problem, but, given the extreme temperatures it takes to operate the boiler, it wasn’t safe.
“Some guessed it would take two days to cool down enough to work on it,” he said. Two days might as well be 200 as the next concert isn’t scheduled until Christmas 2006.
For Ryan, who has been at the whistle’s controlling slide arm since 1955, it was only the second concert he hasn’t been able to perform because of an equipment malfunction. The last time was in 1986.
At that time, Ryan said, the company considered ending the tradition. Nothing is gained financially by hosting the concert, he said.
Ryan said, if anything, the company spends thousands of dollars maintaining a music-making boiler. Oil and basic boiler repairs typically cost around $5,000 annually.
“The boiler was once used to heat their facility,” Ryan said. “But they’ve been using newer equipment for many, many years.”
Someday, he said, costs might bring the tradition to an end.
“We’re taking a look to see what happened,” Walt Senkowski, New York Wire’s vice president of finance, said of the malfunction. He declined to comment further.
Ryan said he hopes the company will do what it takes to put the midnight concerts back on track.
“Each concert lost is like losing a friend,” Ryan said.
Bressler agreed.
“My daughters came home to spend the holiday with me and hear the whistle,‿ he said. “It hurts not to hear them.”
Ryan said it will hurt if he never gets to play again.
“But you have to give credit to the wire company,” he said. “For 30 years they’ve kept the music playing at a high price to them. So let’s hope they think it’s still worth it to not let this good thing end.”
So there it is, overlooked county landmark No. 14, the New York Wire Co.’s factory whistle.
(See earlier York Town Square posts on the Little Courthouse, Prospect Hill Cemetery, War Mothers Memorial, USO at York County Academy’s former gymnasium, York’s Salem Square soldiers monument, the Cookes House, York’s rowhouses, Wrightsville’s monuments, the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge, memorial trees along highways, the Inches, Camp Stewartstown and the Wrightsville Bridge supports.)