Part IV: New York Wire factory whistle: ‘The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument’

In 1975, Walter Spahr Ehrenfeld wrote “York’s Factory Whistles,” a booklet covering a seemingly arcane topic. But many people in his day remembered how the many whistles around York County helped order life. Today, the topic is in the news with the announced continuation of the New York Wire Factory Whistle concert. The booklet is out of print, but available at York County libraries. Also of interest: The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument and The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument – encore and Part III: The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument .

Things are in place for the annual New York Wire Factory Whistle Concert to continue for years, deploying compressed air rather than its trademark steam.
That’s the future for the whistle with a movable, note-forming slide that is touted as: “The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument.”
So what is the place of factory whistles in York County’s past?
We turn to Walter Ehrenfeld’s booklet “York Factory Whistles” to help answer that:

Importance of the whistles: “The eerie sounds of factory whistles in the early morning hours in York several decades ago were about as commonplace as today’s traffic jams, formed by workers heading to or from many of the same factories. Since steam was a vital source for power supply and heating, as well as industrial processing, it was only logical that it should be used for calling the employees to work, to announce the noon lunch hour, or the end of the day’s labor.”
Why steam? Steam was used everywhere in the community – to heat homes and power factories. Thus, it was available to power the whistles around the county.

Number of York-area factory whistles, 1900-1940:
Putting York on the map: “Several years ago … a York resident was sitting in the lobby of a prominent London hotel, watching television on Christmas Eve, when suddenly the commentator announced a special feature. Imagine the Yorker’s surprise when he heard the (New York) Wire Cloth Company whistle being played, with proper identification by the announcer.”
Second best-remembered whistle today:The “daddy” of them all, York Ice Machinery’s (Borg-Warner’s) deep, loud sound similar to an ocean liner. Its name? “Old Bull”
“Whistles” and their kin were everywhere: Factories, fire engines, church bells, trains, trolley cars, circus calliopes.

World War II warning whistle protocol:
“The first warning signal was a steady blow of three minutes. The alert, meaning to take cover, was a wavy up and down sound and, finally, the ‘all clear’ signal was a steady three-minutes blow.”
Number of whistles of all types in use for emergency purposes in county in 1973: 78.
Author’s view of New York Wire whistle concerts: “It is so powerful that the rather weird music can be heard for many miles in the community. Both old and young alike are thrilled by its timely renditions.”
Why the author wrote the book: “During the 1973 Christmas season, my brother-in-law, F. Reed Alvord, whose father, Fred R. Alvord, was manager of the New York Wire Cloth Company from the middle 1890’s until the early 1920’s, marveled while listening to a recording of the now famous whistle at the above plant. Suddenly, he suggested that I should write an article about the various factory whistles which existed in York some years ago, with a corresponding reference to York’s many industrial plants. It was through his prompting that this modest history was undertaken.”

A helpful feature of Ehrenfeld’s booklet is the inclusion of scenes of York-area factories in the first 40 years of the 20th century. This view of McKay Chain Co. is one of those appearing in the booklet.

A sampling of other factory whistle posts
York County enthusiasts could find historical event, site to visit every day.
World War II-era air raid siren discovered atop Yorktowne Hotel.
Unusual valve gave steam whistle prominence in World War II.
The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument
The world’s loudest music without amplification from a non-musical instrument – encore

You can always search for York Town Square posts on Google. For example, when you search for yorktownsquare and New York Wire, you get this.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
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