York County's Steam Whistle Christmas Tradition

In York County, Pennsylvania, Christmas day is heralded at 134 decibels. A unique concert emanates from a steam whistle perched high atop the Metso factory building.

Don Ryan is called the Whistle Master. Don says, “I play the world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument.”

At 12:15 every Christmas, for the last 60 years, Don, and his father before him, takes his place at the controls. He has a team of only three people. “Why do we wait until a quarter after 12? The churches for the most part let out at 12 o’clock.’ Don laughs when he says that people have told him that they tell their preachers, ‘If you’re not finished by 12, we’re leaving.’”

Good seats are available for miles. People can hear the steam whistle in a 5 to 10 mile radius, depending on the wind direction.

Don says, “People in a distance that hear this in the still of the night tell me it sends chills through them because it’s 360 degree surround sound. Some people like to be on top of it, and they call it ‘Whistle Tailgating.’”

Not everyone appreciates the unique sounds. Don says, “Some of the girls said, ‘What is THAT?’ And, one girl says to the other, ‘it sounds like a sick whale.’”

But detractors aside, Don and his whistle earned a distinguished place in the Guinness Book of World Records.  “This decibel reading is 134.1 decibel. A jet engine at the same distance is only 115 decibel.”

Several years ago, the power behind the whistle changed from steam to air. Don admits the new power source is safer for his team. No hard hats are required now. “Hot steam would drop down on you. It stings you and dissipates fast, but it was a very dirty job.”

The obvious question is, ‘why do one man and his family give up Christmas Eve every year to keep this unconventional concert going?’

Don says, “I feel that the Lord is moving me to do this. It brings families together.
It brings a lot of happiness to a lot of people I see.

Don has tears in his eyes as he reflects on his work through the years. “I get a little sentimental. You’ll have to excuse me, but it brings me a lot of happiness - what I’m doing for the people.”

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