Historical Mitigation Comes to York, PA
What is historical mitigation? A simplified example is that when a structure that might have some historical value is demolished, something is done to compensate for that loss.
When the Sovereign Bank Stadium in York, bounded by George, North, Queen, and Arch streets, quite a few structures were torn down. Some of these were railroad-related, so the York County Industrial Development Authority, with the research assistance of Justine Landis, put together a walking tour History of Rail in York, Pennsylvania. The free brochure, which is available at several sites, including York County Heritage Trust, points out ten sites in the area of historical significance, some of which are no longer standing.
The pamphlet cover depicts the model of Phineas Davis’s 1831 York locomotive, built in York. It can be seen at York County Heritage Trust’s Agricultural and Industrial Museum.
Click here for information on the museum.
Two panels of text in the brochure give an overview of York rail history. To learn why it was such a struggle to have the railroad that became the Northern Central (later Pennsylvania Railroad) come from Baltimore to York, see my column from the York Sunday News below.
When the Trains Came to York
Lately there has been talk of public transportation linking York and Baltimore, at least a Rabbittransit run from York to the Hunt Valley light rail station. Here’s hoping that establishing such a link won’t be as difficult as it was getting the initial train service to York in the 1830s.
York County had to fight a Philadelphia dominated Pennsylvania Legislature for years for permission to lay rail lines from Maryland. Competition between Philadelphia and Baltimore for trade was fierce. It was easier for local people to get produce and other products, such as flour, to Baltimore than Philadelphia. Baltimore was nearly half as close and a major river did not have to be crossed. Philadelphia feared the competition if railroads made transportation to Baltimore even more simple. State Senator Simpson of Philadelphia dramatically declared that a Baltimore to York rail line would “…drain the very life blood from her [Philadelphia’s] veins.”
The Baltimore & Susquehanna Railroad, one of the earliest steam railroads in the country, was incorporated in Maryland in 1828. The nearly 36 miles of rail to the Pennsylvania-Maryland line was completed in September 1832. The B&S applied for a charter from the Pennsylvania legislature in 1828 to continue the line to York, but it was rejected by the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
Yorkers rallied the support of the people and legislators from the area. The York Gazette summed up local attitude in late 1828 when it called Philadelphia “City-Of-Want-All-Trade.” Still, the bill lost again in the 1829 House and Senate.
In 1830 the railroad proponents changed their strategy. Instead of the Baltimore & Susquehanna applying for a charter to continue on from the Maryland line, York business and professional people formed the York & Maryland Line Railroad Company.
Baltimore interests were still very much in the picture, as an 1829 letter written by George Small of York shows. Small answers the queries of B&S President, George Winchester, estimating the area from which the railroad would draw trade, how much freightage should be charged, and the volume of goods both ways.
In January 1830 nearly all York community leaders, including native Philadelphian Richard Rush, signed a petition to the state representatives and senators from this area, urging them to convince other legislators that the approval of the railroad would benefit much of the state, not just York County. The York & Maryland Line bill passed the Pennsylvania House in 1830 but was beaten in the Senate.
Philadelphians stepped up their campaign, holding public protests against the York & Maryland Line proposal and sending delegations to lobby in Harrisburg. Both houses again failed to approve the charter in 1831.
Yorkers didn’t give up. They asked why taxes paid by Yorkers were used for other improvements, such as the Pennsylvania Canal system, from which they would not benefit. They asked why Yorkers couldn’t spend their own money to benefit themselves and much of the state. They declared this was a “York Project” and would be backed by York “wealth, active capital, and enterprise.”
Finally, in January 1832 the railroad bill passed the House by two votes. On March 13th news reached York that the state Senate had also approved chartering the line. York celebrated. Dr. Alexander Small recorded in his diary: “The bells were rung for two hours–there was a splendid illumination [lights in the windows of houses and public buildings] at night and a respectable procession with a full band of music paraded the principle streets…with many other demonstrations of joy.” The newspapers went into more detail, painting a vivid picture of public celebrations, even though the Gazette described the weather as being “cold enough to blunt the edge of a razor.”
Construction through very difficult terrain started quickly. Finally, on August 23, 1838, the trains came to York.
More followed: The York and Wrightsville Railroad opened in May 1840 to complete the link to the Susquehanna and points east and north. The York & Cumberland Railroad was completed to the Harrisburg area by the beginning of 1851. In 1854 the Baltimore & Susquehanna, York & Maryland Line, York & Cumberland, and Susquehanna (north from Harrisburg) railroads merged to form the Northern Central Railway Company. York was firmly established in the center of a vast and growing transportation network.
Even though primarily instituted to carry York County produce to wider markets and bring manufactured goods back to the area, there can be no doubt that the established rail lines and subsequent freight capacity allowed York County manufacturers to become giants in their field during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even though York County industry is somewhat diminished from its heyday, we still benefit today from those forward-thinking nineteenth century leaders who kept York in the crossroads.