Historic Billmeyer mansion was new when the Rebels rolled through York
U.S. government photograph of the Billmeyer house at 225 E. Market Street in downtown York, Pennsylvania. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
As the infantry brigade of Brig. Gen. John B. Gordon marched through York, the main column followed Market Street (side columns marched on Philadelphia and King streets in parallel). East Market Street was lined with fashionable brick homes, including some of the wealthier and better known families such as various elements of the Small clan, the Latimers, and others.
Perhaps the single most impressive of these sturdy and attractive dwellings was the Billmeyer mansion, owned by a prosperous businessman who, among his other interests, co-owned a factory that manufactured railroad cars. The home was built in 1863, the same year that the Civil War took a more personal turn for York Countians when the area was invaded by the Rebels.
Charles Billmeyer, whose father Andrew had been a local book and Bible printer, constructed this Victorian Italianate masterpiece, which featured frescoes by two Italian artists who helped with the paintings in the U.S. Capitol building. The mansion is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is owned and managed by the adjacent Presbyterian Church. The church bought the house from the Historical Society in 1959 and renovated it into office space. Church officials wanted to raze the structure late in the 20th century, and, in a landmark victory for local preservationists, the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) managed to force a legal ruling saving the building for future generations.
Many Confederates marveled at York’s impressive public buildings and houses, and no doubt this house, and the adjacent church (rebuilt in 1861) attracted attention from the Georgians as they marched past it twice (June 28 en route to Wrightsville and June 29 heading back through York to their campsite along the Carlisle Road).
All photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.
On June 29, before Gordon’s men marched past the Billmeyer mansion a second time, Maj. Gen. Jubal Early was ransoming meeting town officials for money and supplies, making some rather bold threats to apply the torch to private businesses near the railroad, including the Billmeyer & Small railroad car factory. Cooler heads eventually prevailed, and Early did not torch the factories (he did burn some rail cars and smaller buildings, but, out of concern that a fire might spread into the residential neighborhoods, never ordered any further destruction).
Charles and Elizabeth (Kolb) Billmeyer’s main source of income was therefore spared, and Billmeyer & Small grew into one of the country’s largest makers of passenger and freight cars. At its peak, it had an estimated capacity of 200 freight and 6 passenger cars per month.
Charles Billmeyer died in November 1875 and his son George S. Billmeyer took over the business, as well as owning the family’s mansion where he had spent his teenage years before heading off to Princeton.
Billmeyer & Small advertisement from the 1879 Car Builders Dictionary. Money from the sale of railcars enabled Charles Billmeyer to construct his impressive mansion in 1863.