York Factory Whistle Concert: A unique Christmas tradition returns

Harper Ho
York Dispatch

A longstanding tradition will return on Christmas morning in the form of a high-pitched steam whistle ringing out across York City.

"One of the unique things I love: When I'm finished playing a song, people lay on their horns for applause," said whistle master Donald E. Ryan, who's been playing the massive  whistle for more than three decades.

Ryan is warmed up and ready to put on the annual factory whistle concert at Metso Industrial Materials on Arch Street, which will begin shortly after midnight on Christmas Day. Ryan and his family have played traditional Christmas carols on the factory whistle every year since 1955.

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Yorkers can hear the sounds of the Christmas carols being played from miles away. But even more people have tuned in to hear them — via the internet — from across the globe. Now in its seventh year, people can tune in to watch a live stream of the concert at www.yorkpafactorywhistle.com. Streaming will begin at 12 a.m.

Ryan said the whistle produces 134.1 decibels of sound at a 23-foot distance, which is louder than a jet engine, which produces 115 decibels at the same distance. Depending on the wind direction, he said, the whistle concert has been heard up to 12 miles away.

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'Weird music': For new transplants who are unfamiliar with this York tradition, hearing the whistle for the first time without warning can be unnerving.

"It's funny the different stories that people tell me who have never heard it before," Ryan said. "You don't see anybody playing it, but you hear this weird music when you're all around York." 

Some new residents, who later became fans of Ryan, told him that they had first thought their house was haunted, he said. 

From left, Jeri Jones, of North Codorus Township, opens the valve and Barry Leader, of York Township, points to sheet music as Whistle Master Donald E. Ryan, of Springettsbury Township, plays the variable-pitched York factory whistle during rehearsal in York City, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. The York Factory Whistle Concert will take place early Christmas morning at 12:15 a.m. and last for about 25 minutes. This would be Ryan's 66th year presenting the concert in York, and will be broadcast live on facebook. Last year the live broadcast reached 78 countries. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Other stories include a mother who wasn't too happy about the factory whistle playing after she had put her baby to sleep, Ryan said. 

And one time, folks at the York County Courthouse asked him nicely to practice after business hours because the sound was disrupting court sessions, he said.

Even though Ryan is at the helm, it takes at least four people, including himself, to carry out the 20- to 25-minute show on Christmas morning.

One person operates an air compressor, another pulls and holds the valve open to the whistle and finally someone  points at the music to help Ryan better read the notes, he said.

Whistle Master Donald E. Ryan, right, of Springettsbury Township, back, plays the variable-pitched York factory whistle while Barry Leader, of York Township, uses a pointer to guide Ryan as they follow sheet music during rehearsal in York City, Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. The York Factory Whistle Concert will take place early Christmas morning at 12:15 a.m. and last for about 25 minutes. This would be Ryan's 66th year presenting the concert in York, and will be broadcast live on facebook. Last year the live broadcast reached 78 countries. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The York Christmas tradition began in the 1920s with a steam whistle at the New York Wire Co. building on East Market Street. In 2013, the whistle was transferred to the Metso Co. building on Arch Street. 

Steam was used until 2009. Since 2010, however, the whistle has been powered by compressed air.

Whistle Master Donald E. Ryan, of Springettsbury Township, plays the York Factory Whistle during rehearsal in York City, Saturday, Dec. 22, 2018. The York Factory Whistle Concert will take place early Christmas morning at 12:05 a.m. and last for about 40 minutes. On a calm night, the whistle can be heard in about a five mile radius. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The York Factory Whistle Concert Fund, established in 2011, helps keep the tradition alive, according to the York County Community Foundation. The Engineering Society of York and the York Factory Whistle Concert Committee now run the annual event, Ryan said. 

"These people that come in and help out. They're from different industries around York," Ryan said. "Without these other people stepping up, I could not do this."

— Reach Harper Ho at hho@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @howdyhoharper.