Part of the USA Today Network

John D. Denney, Jr., Railroad & Trolley Historian

1880 Railcar Doorsill Plate “BILLMEYER & SMALL, BUILDERS. YORK, PA”

When I met John Denney for the first time, one of the first photos he showed me was a doorsill plate from a Billmeyer & Small Passenger Railcar built in 1880 and still in use.  John made the comment, “Just think of the stories of all the people that have stepped over and on this plate in 125 years.”  John D. Denney, Jr. was, without a doubt, the foremost authority on Billmeyer & Small.  He had spent decades researching the company and their railcars, yet claimed that he found little to show for his efforts.


To the contrary, John Denney uncovered the majority of what we know today about Billmeyer & Small.  I was introduced to John Denney as a result of my family history research.  Most of my ancestors arrived in Philadelphia by the mid-1700s and spent a generation in Lancaster County prior to settling in York County.  I have attended the Lancaster Family History Conference for close to 20-years and usually caught up with Fred Abendschein, who also attended annually.

Fred Abendschein started his engineering career working on York’s air-conditioning compressor designs, like myself.  We worked on a few of the same projects and shared an office for a time.  Fred left York Division of Borg-Warner when he received an opportunity at Amp, Inc.  Years later at the Lancaster Family History Conference I made a comment about a historical novel I had been thinking about.  When I told Fred that the central object running through the story was a Billmeyer & Small railcar, his initial reaction, “You have to meet John Denney,” and so Fred arranged it.

John Denney discussed two articles that he wrote.  “The Continuing Saga of Billmeyer and Small” appearing in the June 1998 issue of Milepost, and “Country-wide Supplier of Rail Cars Just Disappeared” appearing in the January/February 2005 issue of Pennsylvania Magazine.  I’ll post more on our conversations and these articles next Wednesday.

With great enthusiasm John Denney showed me a 1965 photo that he had taken.  I got the impression that he only recently realized that this old photo contained a Billmeyer & Small building in the background.  I knew I would eventually post something about John in this blog.  Last week at the York County Heritage Trust, I checked if they had any of his publications. I was amazed to find the very same 1965 photo in a 1966 publication by John Denney; “Trains of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.”

1965 Ma & Pa Steam Train Excursion ready to leave the Ma & Pa Railroad Station along East Market Street in York (1965 Photo, John Denney)

The overexposed tall building and taller chimney in the background were part of Billmeyer & Small Companies’ Spring Garden Car Works that was erected in 1881.  In the prior articles, John Denney included 1950 era photos of the side of the building; now he had proof that building stood until at least 1965.

I went on that 1965 Ma & Pa Steam Train Excursion!  I think that, and my interest in Billmeyer & Small, really endeared me to John Denney.  The photo find last week also reminded me of a reply I made to a post only a month ago about Ma & Pa’s old Ore Valley train station being torn down.  I recalled the 1965 passenger train excursion.

It operated on 7-miles of the Ma & Pa tracks between York and Yoe.  A massive Canadian Pacific steam locomotive pulled this excursion train.  This steam engine was much to heavy for trestles further to the south, therefore Yoe Station was the stop at the end of the line prior to returning to York.  During 1966 and 1967, a smaller steam locomotive was utilized that allowed Ma & Pa Steam Train excursions to run all the way on the 33-miles of track between York and Delta.

If you have an interest in the early industrial history of York County, I will be presenting two talks in November focusing on the 19th Century Railcar Builders of York, Pennsylvania.  A talk at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Penn State York is set on November 7, 2012; you’ll learn about the many railcar builders in York and their effect on York County and the nation.

A talk at the Red Lion Area Historical Society is scheduled on November 29, 2012.  I’ll discuss key railcar builders in the York area and the impact these competitors had on influencing the route of the Peach Bottom Railway (predecessor of the Ma & Pa).  You’ll learn why the initial rail routes bypassed Red Lion and what ultimately resulted in the chosen route.

Both of these talks are influenced by my conversations with John D. Denney, Jr.  He divulged to me the idea for yet another article on Billmeyer & Small.  John lived his whole life in Columbia, Lancaster County, owning an insurance agency.  He passing away October 25, 2007 at the age of 83.  My talks will touch on a few of the topics that John Denney was considering for that final article.

Go to this post for an index of everything on YorksPast about 19th Century Rail Car Builders of York, Pennsylvania.  Check back often, as the posts on this subject expand to include all manufacturers.

Links to related posts include:

Rails through Springettsbury

Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts