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Market sheds in York Square torn down in 1887

Looking toward the southeast corner of York's square
Looking toward the southeast corner of York’s square

York Mayor Daniel K. Noell and many of the town fathers seem to have concluded that it was easier to ask forgiveness than permission when they tore down the market sheds in the square on an 1887 summer night. My recent York Sunday News column below outlines how and why it came about.

Looking toward the northeast corner of York's square on June 30, 1887.
Looking toward the northeast corner of York’s square on June 30, 1887.

The night the market sheds came tumbling down

It was 1887, and York was booming. Manufacturers such as A. B. Farquhar, Variety Iron Works and S. Morgan Smith were going strong. Workers and their families were moving into freshly constructed row houses, and they all needed to shop for food.

At that time there were three market houses in the city: Farmers Market (1866) to the west at Market and Penn streets; Eastern Market (1885) on Market Street past Broad and the magnificent City Market (1879) at Duke and Princess streets to the south. The central and northern sections of town were served by the twin market sheds in the middle of Center (or Centre) Square.

The Center Square market dated back to an October 1755 charter from the governor of Pennsylvania “to have a public market established within said town of York, for the better supplying and accommodating them with good wholesome provisions, and other necessaries…may forever thereafter hold and keep within the town in every week in the year, two market days…the one on Wednesday and the other on Saturday… .”

The first roofed market shed was probably built long before William Wagner depicted it in several 1830 watercolors, standing in the square with the 1756 court house and state house (county offices). These three structures were torn down in the early 1840s and two new market sheds were built in their place in 1842 and 1844. The west one had a basement with a police lockup, mainly for sobering up drunks.

York was incorporated as a borough in 1787, but in 1887 the bustling town received their city charter. Administration consisted of the Mayor and two councils, a Select Council of nine or 10 members and a Common Council of two dozen. Prowell’s History of York County reports that: “Immediately after the organization of the City Councils, the question of the removal of the old market sheds was the foremost topic for discussion.”

Those advocating removal said that the sheds were unsanitary and a nuisance. Another prime reason probably had to do with York Railways Company, formed in 1886, which quickly laid tracks for horse-drawn trolleys. One line operated from the square to Belvidere Avenue and another from the square to Linden Avenue via West Market, Penn, and West York Avenue. A third line went east from the square to Broad Street, but the lines could not be connected because of the market sheds in the square.

On June 27, 1887 the councils passed a resolution authorizing the mayor to issue an order to tear down the sheds. It was a fairly close vote, five to four in the Select Council and 14-10 in the Common Council. Prowell says that “The passage of this resolution caused a lively discussion throughout the city.” Not all citizens agreed that the sheds should be removed, and an injunction was threatened.

Less than three full days later, on June 30, 1887, at 12:05 a.m. Mayor Noell approved the resolution and ordered Street Commissioner Link to proceed. The last two prisoners in the lockup, Henry Bucholtz & W. C. Norris, were released, and by 2 a.m. Link had 20 men, seven mules and three horses in the square ready to go to work. Police were present to keep order. The police were not needed, but a crowd gathered at the square after someone pulled the fire alarm mounted on the tall flag pole between the sheds. As people gathered they saw a great cloud in the moonlight, not smoke, but dust from the collapsing sheds. In a few hours the sheds were flat, crumpling as the teams pulled the supporting posts away. The July 1, 1887 York Gazette reported that workers then started cleanup and “by noon hardly a vestige of those dingy quarters of dirty tramps” remained.

Mayor Noell defended the middle-of-the-night action, claiming that he wasn’t trying to avoid an injunction, only that it was easier to accomplish the destruction when there would be no people or traffic in the square. The city expected to continue renting the market spots in the square to the same vendors, noting that it would be just the same except for having no roof nor overhead meat hooks.

Prowell reports that curbside markets did continue around the square, but, also in 1887, a group of businessmen decided that a market building to rival the other three would be a good idea for the central part of town. The first step, accomplished by March 30, 1888, was to purchase numerous properties in the vicinity of the southeastern intersection of Beaver and Philadelphia streets. These were not vacant lots, but occupied by substantial businesses and homes, including the Trinity Reformed Church parsonage. The Dempwolf architectural firm, the leading one of its day in the area, designed a five-towered neo-Romanesque building in an L-shape, and contractor George Yinger went to work, completing the massive building by the end of the year. The cost, not including architectural fees, was reported to be $53,650 ($1,314,502 today).

Some of the features included four arc lights installed by Peoples’ Light Company, and stoves, probably coal burning, scattered throughout. There was a toilet room exclusive for ladies, which had its own stove. Thirty butcher stalls were auctioned off, with the butchers allowed to select their spot. These quickly sold out and ten more were added. Hundreds of people toured the grand building the night before its opening on Saturday morning December 15, 1888. The market would also be open on Wednesday mornings.

Being new, and one of the few large venues in town, many public and private meetings and banquets were held in the vast space. One well covered event was the October 1894 national meeting of the Young Peoples Society of Christian Endeavor. Six thousand people were said to have attended with 5,000 seated within the market house, which the York Dispatch reported was “decorated in pink and white, colors of the society, with touches of red and blue.” Coincidentally, or not, the chairman of the committee on providing the meeting place was architect Reinhart Dempwolf.

Central Market has gone through changes over the years, but it has survived supermarkets and residential exodus from city. Now, however, with more people rediscovering urban living and fresh food without the middlemen, the market is ready to provide “good wholesome provisions, and other necessaries” for many more years.

Click this link to read my previous posts on York County markets.