Local traditions are a great way to enjoy the holiday spirit, no matter how strange they may seem.
This afternoon, I listened to a 15-minute-long rendition of “God Bless America” as played by a steam whistle.
It was… strange.
An eerie, haunting, and kind of mournful sound. The steam whistle brings to mind days of early risers and efficiency, of men in overalls walking to the factory with lunch pails in hand.
Yet the only time citizens of York, PA (within a 5-10 mile radius) hear this call from days past is on Christmas Eve, when the steam whistle at the New York Wire Co. plays carols conducted by Whistlemaster (yes, that seems to be an official job description) Donald Ryan.
Today, I listened to the practice session for tomorrow night’s concert. Having totally forgotten about this annual ritual since I heard it for the first time last year, I was really spooked when I heard the high-pitched wailing from afar, and wondered if either 1.) a neighbor kid was whining somewhere, 2.) a lost dog or a pack of wolves was howling, or 3.) someone’s saxophone practice wasn’t going so well.
Yet the longer I listened, the more the noises become notes, the mystery became melody, and the steam whistle warm-up was in full swing. (Oooh! It’s playing “The First Noelle” now!)
The steam whistle concert tradition began in the 1920s and, in spite of a hiatus or two over the years, continues today. Donation funding is even established to ensure that this strange, yet beautiful, tradition can continue, with generations of the Ryan family Whistlemasters at the helm. (Donald Ryan’s father, Marlin, brought new life to the steam whistle carols when he took over from 1955-1990.)
About two decades before the concerts began, the New York Wire Company was founded in 1888 in New York. Soon after, York Wire Cloth of York (later to become New York Wire Cloth) was established. The company specializes in industrial mesh and drawn wire, like the kind of stuff used in insect screens. New York Wire Co. is still in business today, but I am uncertain if the York branch is still in business or to what capacity. But, for certain, the annual steam whistle concerts are alive and well at the factory on 441 East Market Street in York.
This blog has a recording and video of the steam whistle carols and includes some great info about the steam whistle’s musical capabilities. I also found some info on the New York Wire Co. website.
Although the steam whistle no longer ensures the punctuality of workers in York, it has become more than a wail of days past: for Yorkers, it is an annual song celebrating Christmas nights, both present and future.
This post originally appeared on my (now defunct) Adventures in York blog on December 23, 2011.