York County Commissioners left behind detailed records of courthouse in which Congress met
Anyone who has passed through York has probably noticed the Colonial Court House on West Market Street by the Codorus Creek. It is a replica of York County’s first courthouse, which originally sat in the middle of York’s square.
Now part of York County Heritage Trust, the impressive building is open for regularly scheduled tours, except during the winter months. The tours also include the Golden Plough Tavern, General Gates House and Bobb Log House historic buildings, just across Pershing Avenue.
Reconstructing the building, which served as the capital of the newly United States during 1777-1778, was spearheaded by Judge John Rauhauser and his York County Bicentennial Commission in 1976. Much of the research, which I consulted for my recent York Sunday News column below, was done by Landon Reisinger, Librarian at the Historical Society of York County (also now part of York County Heritage Trust). Reisinger was able to draw on the meticulous records left behind by those early county commissioners, resulting in a quite accurate reconstruction.
York’s Historic First Courthouse
We should be aware of the momentous events that occurred right here in our first York County courthouse 235 years ago. Continental Congress fled Philadelphia as it fell to the British. They came here, 100 miles further west and across the wide Susquehanna, adding extra margins of safety. During the nine months that York was the capital of the United States, from September 30, 1777 to June 27, 1778, the Articles of Confederation were adopted and the Treaties of Alliance and of Amity and Commerce with France were signed. The first National Thanksgiving was proclaimed here upon news of American victory at Saratoga, a major turning point of the Revolutionary War.
That Congress had to deal with many problems besides British occupation of Philadelphia and New York: Shortages of food, clothing and blankets for the troops; Continental money’s rapid depreciation; soldiers desperately needing proper training and political factions trying to undermine General Washington. None of these historic events would have taken place in York if a spacious courthouse had not been erected about 20 years before, giving Congress needed meeting room.
Today’s York Colonial Court House replica building is on West Market Street at the Codorus Creek, part of York County Heritage Trust’s Colonial Complex. Can you imagine a building of that size (45 feet square) sitting in the middle of today’s square?
This courthouse had its beginnings on August 19, 1749, when the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed an act naming Thomas Cox, Michael Tanner, George Swope, Nathan Hussey and John Wright, Jr. as commissioners to carry out formation of the new county of York and also “purchase land at some convenient place in the county…for purpose of erecting a courthouse… .” Center Square was selected, and by November 1753 the commissioners had raised the sum of 504 pounds, 16 shillings and five pence to erect the building with construction getting underway in early 1754. The commissioners themselves served as contractors, leaving much detail on materials and subcontractors in their minute books.
William Willis was directed to furnish stone for a foundation to extend two feet underground and two feet aboveground. Bricks measuring nine by four and a quarter by two and a quarter inches were “to be well burned” by Willis “of clay dug before the date.” Willis would lay the bricks himself, using “good unslaked lime” from Anna Mary & Christopher Dottenhaffer and “sufficient good clean sand” provided by Joseph Heald of Newberry Twp.
John Meem and Jacob Kline were engaged “to perform all carpenters work and joyners work,” as detailed in the minutes. Henry Clark was contracted to saw scantling for the sum of ten shillings per hundred feet and also deliver 1,000 feet of “good seasoned inch poplar boards and 1,000 feet of good oak boards.” Joseph Welchance agreed to make all the smith work, such as “strap bolts for cramping the roof and other brace work at seven pence per pound, the hooks and hinges and fastening at ten pence per pound, the lock at a reasonable price and the spire at top of the turret he will do as cheap as it can be afforded.”
The commissioners hired Robert Jones to bring 7,000 shingles from Philadelphia for 20 pounds, with an allowance to spend more if necessary. John Lane agreed to deliver to Meem and Kline 1,000 feet of pine boards and to be sure they suited the two carpenters. James Benazette supplied nails and some shingles.
There were some modifications as construction progressed. A total of seventeen windows were planned for the first two floors with a small balcony over the front (south) door, but a window was placed there instead. It is difficult to know exactly how the courthouse looked in 1777-78. William Wagner (b. 1800) did meticulous water colors of the building in 1830, accurately showing how it looked then, with the 1815 additions of the front and rear gables and the higher cupola with a clock. Lewis Miller (b. 1796) drew the courthouse before the 1815 renovations, but the commissioners’ minutes document changes before that, especially in 1793 and 1796. The cupola was “to be like that on the courthouse in the borough of Lancaster,” but the Lancaster courthouse burned in 1784, leaving no images behind. The bell was hung in the cupola in 1769, and the “Little General” weathervane, purportedly made by coppersmith Charles Fisher, was perhaps added during the 1796 renovation.
Citizens were sharply divided in the 1841 over the proposal to tear down what some already realized was a historic courthouse. More space was needed, however, and it impeded increasing traffic through town. Even though many were opposed, the cupola was first pulled down with the rest of the building soon reduced to rubble. A few pieces were saved: The sword-wielding weathervane served for many years atop the Rex and Laurel Fire Company, and it is now in York County Heritage Trust’s Fire Museum. The north door, possibly from the 1796 remodeling, served a carpenter’s home on South Queen Street until J.A. Dempwolf, Samuel Small, and C.H. Ehrenfeld bought it in the early 1900s and gave it to York Collegiate Institute, who in turn donated the door to the Historical Society of York County (now York County Heritage Trust) in the 1940s. It can now be seen in YCHT’s second floor galleries.
As the 150th anniversary of Congress meeting in York came closer, there was renewed interest in the first courthouse. In 1927, using the commissioners minutes together with earlier depictions, architect Reinhardt Dempwolf drew a floor plan and artist Edwin Greiman created a perspective view of the original courthouse. In a 1926 speech, Judge McClean Stock advocated rebuilding the first courthouse in time for the sesquicentennial celebration.
That didn’t happen, but the idea came alive again as the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence approached. Judge John F. Rauhauser chaired the York County Bicentennial Commission and raised the funds to make the replica a reality. Landon C. Reisinger, HSYC librarian, delved back into the commissioners’ minutes and many other sources to make sure dimensions and materials would be accurate. One major problem remained: the size of the footprint of the building had not been recorded. Some sources said it was 45 by 55 ft. and others 45 by 45 ft. The only solution–on May 23, 1975 a crowd gathered as trenches were dug. The foundations were quickly found, forming an area 45 feet square. The new building, rising again in celebration of 200 years of independence, was dedicated May 1, 1976.
I’ll share more details later, as well as other illustrations of York County’s Colonial Courthouse.