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Coal Baron built Mansion in Springettsbury

Circa 1913 Postcard of York Motor Club, York, PA (Postcard is Postmarked June 1914 and is from the Collections of S. H. Smith)
Circa 1913 Postcard of York Motor Club, York, PA (Postcard is Postmarked June 1914 and is from the Collections of S. H. Smith)

West Virginia coal baron John Laing built a retirement mansion in Springettsbury Township. It still stands today; on the northwest corner of East Market Street and North Vernon Street. A circa 1913 postcard shows this Colonial Revival mansion with massive wrap-around porch, as it was later used as the clubhouse of the York Motor Club.

In 1903, John H. Longstreet laid out a grid of streets and building lots East of York. The big lots, along East Market Street were sized with 60-feet of frontage and 150-feet deep. The lots along other streets were standard size; generally with 25-feet of frontage and 120-feet deep.

One big lot did not suit John Laing. In 1906 Laing purchased six adjoining lots, two big lots plus four standard lots, to create one mega-lot with 120-feet of frontage along East Market Street and 250-feet deep, stretching back along North Vernon Street. John Laing retained noted local architect John A. Dempwolf to design the building still standing at 2025 East Market Street.

West Virginia coal baron John Laing

John Laing was born in Scotland on August 24, 1865. His family, headed by his father, coal miner Alex Laing, immigrated to America in 1867. John Laing left school at nine-years old, to work in the coal mines of Mercer County, PA. Thereafter, John Laing worked in a string of coal mines within Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia until 1891; when he accepted a clerk position at a mine store.

Throughout 1891, John Laing advanced rapidly, from clerk to bookkeeper and then in charge of the Red Ash Coal Company payrolls. In January, 1892, at twenty-six years old, John Laing was appointed mine foreman and five years later was advanced to the position of mine superintendent for not only the Red Ash mine but also two other mines in the area.

In 1901, Laing was appointed superintendent of many coal companies in the area that consolidated as the New River Smokeless Coal Company. At the start of 1905, John Laing became General Manager and part owner of the company. The timing could not have been any better for John, since later in 1905 the entire holdings of the company were purchased by the Guggenheim interests of New York City. John Laing was suddenly a wealthy man and chose to retire at 40-years old. DeLoss McKnight III submitted this photo of John Laing to the Find-A-Grave family history research site.

John Laing [1865-1943] (Submitted to the Find-A-Grave family history research site by DeLoss McKnight III)
John Laing [1865-1943] (Submitted to the Find-A-Grave family history research site by DeLoss McKnight III)

Why did West Virginia coal baron John Laing retire to York County?

In 1904, John Laing visited York County, in Pennsylvania, to examine equipment that might be useful for improving mine operations. He met his future wife during that trip. He married Margaret Gertrude Slagle on October 6, 1904 in Hanover, York County, PA; which was the town where she was born to William and Margaret (Stein) Slagle. When married, Margaret was 24-years old and John Laing was 39-years old.

John and Margaret Laing rapidly had three daughters. Louisa was born December 30, 1905. Gertrude was born May 16, 1907. Margaret was born May 10, 1908. A growing family, just as John Laing suddenly became a wealthy man was likely the reason he retired at 40-years old. The May 3, 1906 issue of The York Daily contained an article about John Laing retiring to York, PA; quoting that article:

John Laing, Rush Run, W. Va., a retired coal operator, will make York his home. He has disposed of his property in the south and will reside east of the city. He has purchased a plot of ground on the corner of Market and Vernon streets, upon which he will have erected a modern brick dwelling house for his family. The plans and specifications for the proposed structure are being made by Architect Dempwolf. The cost thereof will be about $12,000. Mr. Laing was favorably impressed with the city upon his first visit here two years ago.

Evidently John and Margaret Laing were planning an even bigger family. Their house had six large bedrooms on the second floor and a massive playroom on the third floor. I’ll go into more details about John Laing’s house in Springettsbury Township in my next post.

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