International fame for York County factory whistle tradition

Donald Ryan's factory whistle concert reached 45 countries and was translated into 44 languages when it was livestreamed last year.

At a practice for the concert at the Metso Corp. building in York City on Saturday, Dec. 16, Ryan recalled a comment he got from a woman last year, asking him why he played "Happy Birthday."

"What does that have to do with Christmas?" she had asked.

"But she really liked it, 'cause she said, 'How did you know it was my birthday?'" Ryan said.

"It meant a lot to her," he said. "I checked to see where she was from — China."

The factory whistle: Whistle master Ryan has been playing carols on the factory whistle for Yorkers every Christmas morning at 12:15 a.m. since 1955.

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With the help of his family, he slides a piston along a yardstick with a musical scale on it.

"It works on the same principle as a toy slide-whistle," Donald Ryan's son, Mark Ryan, wrote on the factory whistle website.

"Steam or air is injected into the whistle, the piston moves to a given point, which produces a single note," he continued. "When the piston changes, the steam or air column is increased or decreased, depending on the movement of the piston, thereby producing another note."

The whistle was originally used to signal the start and end of the day, or lunch break, for factory workers in the 1800s, according to the website.

Now it's become an annual York County Christmas tradition heard anywhere from 5 to 12 miles away, depending on the direction of the wind.

Whistle tailgating: Donald Ryan said the community will show up for "whistle tailgating" all around the York area.

"When I'm done playing a song, they lay on their horns for applause," he said, adding that it's "very touching."

"Music is my hobby," he said. A mechanical engineer by trade, Donald Ryan does the concert every year because of the positive reactions. 

People will listen to the whistle from their Christmas parties every year, waiting for his last song before they leave, he said.

"There's so many people that tell me how much it means to the family," Donald Ryan said.

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"You're always gonna have some scrooges," he added, but for the most part people give good feedback.

Donald Ryan tries to make sure he is considerate to businesses around him. In the past, he has practiced on weekday afternoons, only to find out later that the whistle was so loud that workers could not hear their phone conversations.

The whistle, which produces 134.1 decibels of sound at a 23-foot distance, is louder than a jet engine, which produces 115 decibels of sound at the same distance, according to materials from Donald Ryan.

Now he practices on weekends, to limit disturbance.

Challenges: The concert has endured many switch-ups throughout the years, being a staple of the New York Wire Co. until 2013, when it moved to the Metso Corp. building.

A steam whistle was used until 2009, but since 2010 the whistle has been powered by compressed air, according to Donald Ryan.

New York Wire Co. employees came out to help and support Donald Ryan at the practice Saturday.

Jack Longstreet brought his 5-year-old daughter, Lana, to hear the whistle practice. They live on Florida Avenue, about a mile away, and usually listen to the whistle from home.

"It's unlike most of what you would normally think," Longstreet said of the unusual sound.

Terri Logan, right, of West Manchester Township, assists as Whistle Master Don Ryan plays the variable-pitched whistle as he practices for the Factory Whistle Concert at Think Loud Development in York City, Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. The concert, sponsored by METSO Industrial Minerals, will begin at 12:15 A.M. Monday, Dec. 25, and will last for about 25 minutes. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"I prefer steam because of the eerie sound," Donald Ryan said, but it costs $20,000 to rent and run the steam boiler versus $1,200 for the air compressor. 

The future is uncertain for the concert, as the Metso Corp. building anticipates a new tenant in Think Loud Development, which contributed financially to the concert this year.

"They're just happy I'm back every year," Donald Ryan said of the community. "It's touch and go every year."

Jeri Jones, public relations representative for Donald Ryan, said they are training engineers to help with the technical aspects of operating the whistle after Metso Corp. steps back.

New goals: Terri Logan, an old trumpet student of Donald Ryan's, assisted him during practice by pointing to the notes on his sheet music. 

He played selections including "God Bless America," "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

"It just blows my mind," Donald Ryan said of the concert's reach across the world.

This year's factory whistle concert will be broadcast live over the internet, making it the fourth time the concert has been streamed.

They got 60,000 views the first year, a quarter million the second year and 3.25 million last year, so Donald Ryan thinks they might be able to reach 10 million this year.

The concert is presented by the Engineering Society of York, the York Factory Whistle Concert Committee, the York County Community Foundation and Metso Corp. 

Another practice concert will be held at the Metso building Saturday, Dec. 23, before the concert on Christmas Day.