This Phineas Davis historical marker, by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, was erected in 1949. The marker is located along West King Street in York, PA; next to the site of the Davis shop at the northwest corner of West King Street and South Newberry Street. (S.H. Smith photo)
The York shop where Phineas Davis built steam locomotives
“Clockmaker began York’s Railroad Heritage” is the title of a Phineas Davis talk, which has been presented seven times. Comments following each talk always resulted in additional research, which has continually fine-tuned the story. Suggested additions were also made; such as the story of black machinist William Wood, who worked in the Davis shop.
During a Zoom meeting last week, a comment was made; that only about 14 men worked at the Phineas Davis shop. The “about 14,” struck a nerve and reminded me of comments which followed the fifth time the presentation was given in 2018. Paraphrasing two of those comments from my notes:
“In the early 1800s, some shop laborers progressed into skilled trades, like a mechanic; who assembled or repaired things. They are known as a journeyman mechanic during a six-year apprenticeship. Only afterwards are they known as a mechanic, and after achieving valued years of experience, only a few might be elevated to master mechanic; that is one who directs the work of mechanics and supervises the apprenticeship training of journeyman mechanics. The same holds true for a machinist; that is progressing from journeyman machinist, to machinist, with only a few elevated to master machinist.”
Afterwards, a little nineteenth century workplace research generally confirmed that comment. The variations were seen in the number of years of apprenticeship; with 5-years the observed minimum and some as many as 8-years.
Paraphrasing, a follow-up comment, made the evening of the talk, directed to the prior remark; in making a point of why the Phineas Davis shop did not work that way: “The Phineas Davis shop was in a small building. We were told only about 14 worked there. With such few workers, a machinist could have been asked to step into the job of a mechanic.”
I thought the size of the Phineas Davis shop, was larger, per things I remembered from the Histories of York County; by both John Gibson and George Prowell. However in re-reading those histories, they only dealt in generalities.
Research in: York County Deeds, Newspapers.com, period Journals, York County History Center resources, and Estate files at the York County Archives was used to answer the question about the size of Phineas Davis’ shop. Those answers further fine-tuned the next series of presentations of “Clockmaker began York’s Railroad Heritage,” during 2019. As opposed to two new slides in the presentation, the full research results are presented in this post.
Size of the Foundry and Shop of Phineas Davis & James Webb
In the following present aerial photo, I show the site locations of a 3-story brick factory building, which opened as foundry & shop of Phineas Davis & James Webb in 1823; plus a plot of ground, that the business acquired along the Codorus Creek, in 1827.
Many people assume Phineas Davis’ shop was only in the building right at the northwest corner of West King and Newberry Streets; because that is where the historical marker was placed. However research shows the shop, at that corner, was much bigger. It sat on 0.34-acres; encompassed ten-properties: 307, 311, 313 & 315 West King Street, and 42, 46, 48, 50, 52 & 56 South Newberry Street. In 1827, the Davis shop property added 0.97-acres; at the southwest corner of West King Street and the Codorus Creek.
The John Gibson History of York County tells the story of this foundry & shop; however slightly different, depending upon the section of the book.
Per page 564 of Gibson’s 1886 History of York County: “Phineas Davis and James Webb, in 1819, started the first large iron foundry and furnace in York. It was located on the corner of Newberry and King Streets. … They employed quite a number of men”
Per page 487 of Gibson’s 1886 History of York County: “The York Foundry, Furnace and Forge. This enterprise was originated by Phineas Davis and Israel Gardner in 1820, or thereabouts. Davis was a silversmith, and worked at his trade a few miles west of the Motter House, in York. Israel Gardner was a practical machinist. James Webb soon after became associated with them, and they built a foundry, and afterward a furnace and forge, on the corner of Newberry and King Streets. Their business prospered and all kinds of castings were made.”
Newspaper articles confirm James Webb was the initial business partner of Phineas Davis. The first part of their business to open, on the corner of King and Newberry Streets was the foundry; per a recurring newspaper notice, signed by Phineas Davis and James B. Webb, on May 13, 1823.
Period journals and newspapers show Phineas Davis and James Webb had common acquaintances going back to at least 1819; so some might have been business dealings. James Webb had foundry experience and appears to be the financial backer of Phineas Davis’ entry into a new field of endeavor; i.e. steam engines.
James B. Webb’s father, Joseph Webb was an English surveyor who came to this country shortly after the Revolutionary War. Joseph was initially employed in the land office of the United States Government. However in about 1800, Joseph settled in Peach Bottom, York County and in 1810 started Palmyra Forge on the site of Castle Fin Forge and Furnace in Lower Chanceford Township. That is where James B. Webb obtained his foundry experience, and his wealth, via his father.
Phineas Davis’s entry into Steam Engines
As I was preparing the “Clockmaker began York’s Railroad Heritage” talk, I was curious if Phineas Davis ever patented anything associated with clocks or watches; as he did on steam engines.
The Patent Office in Washington D.C. suffered virtually a total loss of their records in a massive fire on December 15th 1836. Libraries contained Patent Office publications, which contained listings of all patents back to 1790, plus weekly lists of the recently issued patents, which were used to reconstruct a full List of Patents to the day of the fire.
In these patent lists, published under direction of the Commissioner of Patents, Phineas Davis shows up as the Patentee on three patents, all of which are steam engine related. The most intriguing patent was one I had never seen anything written about. That entry, at very bottom of the following slide, is a United States Patent for a vibratory steam engine, issued to Phineas Davis of York, Pa. on February 17th 1821. TEN YEARS before his work on the “York” locomotive.
While all details are lost, due to the Patent Office fire, other vibratory steam engines of that era give some details how it worked. These engines were not piston-cylinder, but were based upon oscillatory, i.e. back and forth, rotary motion; from which a connecting rod and crank is used to create continuous rotary motion; such as shown in this 1829 Vibratory Steam Engine model from the United Kingdom.
Phineas Davis probably developed the patent model for such a stream engine at his clockmaking & silversmithing shop west of York; in combination with visits to a local machine shop. However almost as soon as the patent is issued, work started with James Webb on planning a place to build the steam engines. Davis & Webb procured the 1/3rd–acre lot at King and Newberry Streets in 1821. Then several months later Phineas Davis headed a business, known as Davis, Owen & Brown, to sell, and or gage interest in, the engines. Owen and Brown were employed as Davis’ sales agents.
They began placing ads in newspapers from New York to New Orleans in June of 1821. Ads starting appearing June 25th and continued two times a week for three months. The ads begin: “The subscribers offer for sale, their Patent Vibratory Steam Engine at lower prices than any Engines of the same power, can be purchased in any part of the United States.” They note these steam engines natural role is to power boats. The reason, vibratory, that is rotary, steam engines had a higher power to weight ratio than the piston-cylinder engines of that era. At the bottom of the ad, the contact firm at York, Pennsylvania is Davis, Owen & Brown.
In the fall of 1821, Phineas Davis personally held several showcase events at coffee houses, such as the following notice in the October 30th 1821 issue of The Evening Post in New York City:
“A working model of Davis, Owen, Brown and Webb’s Vibratory Steam Engine, may be seen at Niblo’s Bank Coffee House, at any time between the hours of ten and two o’clock, on Thursday, the 1st of Nov. A patent lever gold watch, made by the inventor of the Engine, and the smallest ever made, will, at the same time, be shown to visitors.”
The York Foundry is later known as the Old York Foundry
On the corner of King and Newberry Streets, a 3-story brick factory building opened as the foundry of Davis & Webb in 1823; it was often simply called the York Foundry. In 1824 the machine shop part of the building opened, whereupon Israel Gartner was brought on board for his machining expertise. Gartner, is spelled as Gardner in a few places; however Gartner appears to be preferred spelling. Israel Gartner accepted a partnership, whereupon the firm took the name Davis, Gartner & Webb.
Also in 1824, John Elgar was brought on as the Master Mechanic at the firm. Israel Gartner previously employed Elgar. In 1825, John Elgar was placed in charge of designing and building America’s first Iron Steamboat, “The Codorus,” at Davis’ shop. Phineas Davis took charge of designing the propulsion system, which very likely included one of his Vibratory Steam Engines fitted with a vertical boiler.
On December 21, 1826, the partnership of Davis, Gartner & Webb is dissolved by mutual consent, with Davis & Gartner continuing the business, with a work force of 140. At this time, their principal products are steam engines and machinery for paper mills; in addition to any type of iron castings customers may require. James Webb opened a Broker’s Office and Agency for borrowing and loaning money, plus procuring notes, bonds and securities. In 1927, nearly an acre of ground is acquired, by Davis & Gartner, along the Codorus Creek just east along King Street; which appears to be primarily used for storage, associated with their York Foundry operations.
The first practical coal-burning railroad locomotives, the “York” and the “Atlantic,” were designed and built at the Davis & Gartner shop in 1831 and 1832 respectively. The “Atlantic” was an improved version of the “York.” Locomotive designers suggest Phineas Davis’ innovative drive dynamics played a big part in both of these locomotives meeting all requirements specified by the B & O Railroad.
The B & O Railroad was so impressed with the “Atlantic” locomotive, that they purchased the design and hired Phineas Davis to personally supervise construction of 20 of these locomotives at their shops in Baltimore. Which is where Davis remained, as he continued to develop additional locomotive improvements; until his death in 1835.
Israel Gartner bought out Davis’ share of the business from his heirs, and continued operating the foundry and machine shop on the corner of King and Newberry Streets in York. On December 14, 1841, Israel Gartner announces the Foundry and Machine-making Business of the Old York Foundry was sold to Godlove Kane.
Godlove K. Kane no longer produced steam engines, instead he expanded the range of products, made at the Old York Foundry, to include more agricultural tools and equipment. However cast railcar wheels remained a product line. And Godlove Kane developed an improved method for casting railcar wheels; for which he was issued a U.S. Patent in 1847.
On June 1, 1849, Godlove Kane sells the Old York Foundry to Samuel Slaymaker and Daniel Durkee. Slaymaker & Durkee continued to operate the business as founders and machinists; until November of 1869, when they dissolved their firm by mutual consent.
The Works of A. B. Farquhar acquired the pattern equipment of Slaymaker & Durkee’s best selling farm equipment. George F. Baugher acquired other items from the Slaymaker & Durkee going-out-of-business sale; most notably the Old York Foundry building, however the machine shop equipment, was soon moved to a new building on the Baugher commercial lot, adjacent to the west side of the Codorus Creek and north of Market Street.
The Old York Foundry building, on King & Newberry Streets, was used by George Baugher as extra storage; however in its final years it sat vacant, until being put up for sale. Nathaniel Weigle purchased the property and demolished the Old York Foundry building. Most of the descriptions of the building come from reports as it was being demolished in early April of 1883:
“The old Baugher foundry, a large three-story brick building, corner of Newberry and King street, is being torn down by Nathanial Weigle.” “Tuesday and yesterday the third and fourth wall of the old foundry building corner of King and Newberry street were thrown down. Yesterday a large number of persons witnessed the falling of the Newberry street front which came down with a crash that was heard a couple of squares distant. The first and second story walls are still standing.”
Mr. Weigle did not waste any time constructing the ten dwellings on the site of the foundry and machine shop where the Phineas Davis locomotives were designed and built. Per the following May 23, 1883 article, the four dwellings along West King Street are already completed and the six dwellings along Newberry Street are underway.
The following section of the March 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of York, PA, shows the home addresses for the 10-dwelling built in 1883. These addresses were prior to the 1890s acceptance of renumbering of houses in York.
The following section of the 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of York, PA, shows the home addresses for the 10-dwelling built in 1883. These addresses are what we have today, i. e. they are after the 1890s acceptance of renumbering of houses in York.
The background of house renumbering in York is told in the post at this link. Not understanding the 1890s renumbering has caused misstatements in family and public history books.
For example, the 1887 and 1908 Sanborn Maps along South Newberry Street, between Kiing Street and Mason Alley, can be used to show why the following statement is false: “Around 1895, the Neuman Ice Cream Parlor moved down the street from 15 South Newberry Street to 32 South Newberry Street.” When all that changed was the building number; i.e. the Ice Cream Parlor is at the same physical location, on the southwest corner of Newberry Street at Mason Alley.
Click on this LINK for a yorkblog.com Full View of the photos and illustrations in this post.
Links to related posts:Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts