The last train out of York before Jubal Early arrived
Bond certificate issued by the Northern Central Railway in 1917, not too many years after its long-time employee and chief engineer George Small retired from its service. He piloted the last train out of York, Pennsylvania, before elements of Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia occupied and ransomed the town.
With the threat of the Confederate infantry forces marching through south-central Pennsylvania the last week of week, the various railroads in the region began moving their rolling stock and locomotives to safety across the Susquehanna to Harrisburg or Philadelphia. Here in York County, the Northern Central Railway was still in the process of transporting its trains to Lancaster County and on to Philly when Major General Jubal Early’s troops entered York County. Some of its rail cars (many of which were built in York) were still down by the Maryland line as Rebel cavalry began threatening the NCR’s infrastructure. Railroad officials knew that the Confederates would destroy the bridges and cripple the route, as the Rebs had done to the Cumberland Valley Railroad a few days earlier.
For one York railroad engineer, Walnut Street resident George Small, the arrival of the Rebels coincided with a mad dash he was making to get the last of the NCR’s cars to Philadelphia.
Here is his story, as told by the York Dispatch in 1905 (courtesy of the library of the York County Heritage Trust; many thanks to Ray Kinard of the Codorus Valley Historical Society for calling my attention to a transcription donated to the library early in the 20th century).
I collect paper ephemera (a natural because of my long connection with the papermaking and printing industries), including railroad items. My grandfather worked all his adult life for the New York Central Railroad as a bridge construction foreman, and as a young child, my parents lived next to the local Pennsylvania Railroad tracks, so Pennsylvania was one of the very first words I learned to spell (little did I know then that I would live in this state). This old bond certificate for the NCR dates from the mid-1920s.
George Small, 224 Walnut Street, one of the oldest enginemen in the employ of the Northern Central Railway will be retired January 1, 1906, as he celebrated his 70th birthday last Tuesday. The announcement of his retirement was coincident with the dispatches received from Washington, D.C. apropos to the decision of the Federal Court of Claims relative to recompensing the Columbia National Bank for the burning of the bridge across the Susquehanna River between Wrightsville and Columbia during the Civil War, as it is probable that Mr. Small was the first engineer to take a locomotive over the bridge.
Mr. Small had become an engineer during the early part of the Civil War and at the time of the burning of the bridge, he was running an engine designated, “The Susquehanna,” a name suggestive of the incidents in which he figured centrally. The day previous [Saturday, June 27, 1863] to the burning of the bridge, Mr. Small was sent down the Northern Central Road for some box cars which were lying on a siding near the Mason-Dixon Line. He was on his way toward York when in the vicinity of Hanover Junction, he discerned a small troop of rebel cavalrymen galloping along the roadbed of the intersecting railway [the Hanover Branch Railway, running east-west].
The purpose of the rebels apparently was to head off the engine and secure the cars as it was the object of the Confederates to destroy all cars to prevent Union troops from being transported where needed. Appreciating at a glance the situation, Mr. Small opened the throttle to the limit and, calling to the fireman to follow, left the unprotected cab for the sheltering side of the locomotive tender, which in those days carried wood instead of coal. Hurriedly dismounting, the cavalrymen fired shot after shot at the fleeing train, but not a bullet struck the engine or tender, and the engineer and fireman were able to escape safely to this city.
Orders had already been received to send all rolling stock across the Susquehanna River to a place of safety as the news of the Confederate invasion had spread like wildfire. At that time, York factories built freight cars, and Mr. Small added a number of new and half-built cars to his train, on which a company of Union soldiers were also to be transported to Wrightsville. Here he found things in a chaotic condition.
[Note, two old accounts from Union soldiers on the train indicate that the Confederate cavalry fired several long-range shots at the train as it steamed out of York on its way to the river town. For George Small, this was the second time in a few hours that he was under enemy fire, making him perhaps the only York civilian with that distinction, excepting of course his fireman whose name I have not located. Also on board Small’s train that afternoon was the head telegrapher of York, who announced to the waiting crowd at Wrightsville when Small steamed into town at 7:30 PM, “York has fallen!,” sending shock waves through the throng.]
The bridge was an overhead affair and until the time of Mr. Small’s arrival no engine had ever passed over it, at least old railroad records showing none. A man named Sutton furnished the motive power for transporting the cars across to Columbia–ten mules. On arriving at the Wrightsville entrance of the bridge, the engine would be uncoupled and the mules hitched to the train much after the fashion of old horse cars, and the train would proceed by mule power to Columbia where another engine would draw the cars to their destinations.
This procedure was made necessary because of the size and shape of the smoke stacks with which the locomotives of those days were equipped. They were funnel-shaped, ponderous affairs, most of which measured at least five feet in diameter, while others were eight feet in diameter and measured six to eight feet above the boiler proper. Not only was the bridge opening too small to permit the engine to go through, but as cord wood was fuel, the flying sparks would have placed the bridge in continual jeopardy. Upon Mr. Small’s arrival, many cars had been transferred to the other side of the river, but several locomotives, about all [that] the railroad had in operation at the time, were standing on a siding, as though waiting for the Rebels to come and destroy them.
Endowed with mechanical genius and executive ability, the York engineer soon decided to prevent what would have been a great loss, if possible. Accordingly, he ordered his fireman to bank the fire and get some large wrenches. The two then set to work and removed the nuts and bolts by which the gigantic stack was secured to the rest of the engine, which really looked like the smallest part of the machine, and in a short time, the big iron funnel was ready for the next operation, which consisted of running a gondola car up to the cowcatcher and dumping the stack onto it.
Under 10-mule power, the “Susquehanna” then began her maiden trip across the river from which her name was derived. In making the curve onto the bridge, the front wheels left the rails and for a time things were an indigo hue, which was heightened by the sulphurous atmosphere emanating from the mule driver’s mouth. He had objected strenuously from the beginning to this innovation and unusual proceeding, and the derailing of the engine only added to his vocabulary of choice anathemas. Once again the York engineer’s ingenuity was called into play and with the aid of jacks and tackle managed to replace the engine [on the tracks], and the trip to the other shore was made without mishap.
At once, the other engineers importuned Mr. Small to assist to take the stacks off their engines, which he did, the work taking nearly the entire evening to complete. On the Columbia side, the dismantled engines were coupled to trains and hastened toward Philadelphia. The transportation was affected none too soon, for Mr. Small stuck to his engine and had hardly reached Coatesville before flames from the burning bridge lit up the skies, but the engines had been saved to take a prominent part in the remainder of the war.
Mr. Small’s first railroad experience dates back to his early childhood, when he was given a ride on an engine over the same road on which he later made his historic run. The trip was made at night in about the year 1845. The engine was one of the earliest types. The tender was hardly more than a flat car on which sticks of cord wood were placed. The tank was little more than a keg or large bucket, and upon this the embryo engineer, then seven years old, was given a seat. There was no cab whatsoever, a railing being sufficient to prevent the crew from falling overboard. The boilers were wheezy uncertain affairs which consumed a prodigious amount of wood; the sparks from which would make a trail of fire from a long time after the train had passed. This trip of his boyhood is still fresh in Mr. Small’s memory.
Mr. Small is descended from one of York County’s earliest settlers, Lorenz Small, whose sons were prominent in the Revolution. His father was Jesse Small, a farmer and later a miller. He is a master Mason and a Moravian. [He] has a wife and 7 children living.
From a New Oxford newspaper just two years after Small’s retirement…
George Small of York, a retired engineer on the pension roll of the Northern Central Railroad, and one of the best known residents of York, died suddenly on Wednesday, May 8, from neuralgia of the heart, aged 80 years. His wife, four sons and three daughters survive him. At the time of the Southern occupation of York, Small was given charge of a train of valuables and ordered to escape across the river. At Wrightsville, Small removed the stack of the engine and carried out his mission, despite that he was pursued and fired upon by cavalry.
New Oxford Item, May 16, 1907.
Note the age discrepancy, where he aged almost decade from the York Dispatch article…