Part of the USA Today Network

Saga of Billmeyer & Small; John D. Denney, Jr., Part 2

1880’s Photo showing two Billmeyer & Small passenger cars in use on the 3-foot gauge York & Peach Bottom Railway at Delta, PA (from “The Continuing Saga of Billmeyer and Small” by John D. Denney, Jr.)

In my previous post about meeting John D. Denney, Jr., I noted that he was 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.  I have to disagree, John uncovered the majority of what we know today about Billmeyer & Small.

This post contains several quotes from John’s article “The Continuing Saga of Billmeyer and Small” that appeared in the June 1998 issue of Milepost.  John Denney, Jr. followed that article with “Country-wide Supplier of Rail Cars Just Disappeared” appearing in the January/February 2005 issue of Pennsylvania Magazine.


My interest in using Billmeyer & Small as background in a historical novel and the discovery of something in common with our great-grandfathers really endeared me to John Denney.  He divulged to me the idea for yet another article on Billmeyer & Small; however John passed away before it was started.  Both of my talks in November are influenced by my conversations with John D. Denney, Jr.

John Denney was interested in the Pennsylvania Railroad work done by my grandfather Luther S. Smith and my dad Harold L. SmithHe really got animated when we discovered that his great grandfather John Q. Denney and my great grandfather John D. Gilbert were two of the civilians asked to drop a section of the Bridge between Columbia and Wrightsville into the Susquehanna River.  Thus stopping the eastward advance of the invading Confederates in the days prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.

Bridge Burning as seen from Columbia; Before the Sudden Wind Change Directs Fire Towards Columbia (from Civil War Trails Marketing Kit)

John D. Gilbert was a carpenters apprentice in Columbia when he became part of a 16-man crew tasked with boring holes in the timbers of a section of the covered bridge.  John Q. Denney was part of a 4-man crew that filled the holes with gunpowder and lit the fuses.  The covered bridge was solid; the blast did not drop the bridge section near the Wrightsville side of the Susquehanna.  The back-up plan was to burn the sections towards Wrightsville, since the Confederates were upon them.  This worked fine at first, except a sudden wind change towards Columbia resulted in the whole bridge burning.

John D. Denney, Jr.’s articles about Billmeyer & Small begin and end with paragraphs lamenting not being able to find company records, builder’s photographs, or other artifacts.  However between the opening and closing paragraphs, John reveals a host of bits and pieces that he discovered about Billmeyer & Small; these will be discussed in future posts and are historical background for my novel Railcar Gold For now, here are parts of the opening paragraphs from “The Continuing Saga of Billmeyer and Small” by John D. Denney, Jr.

“The Billmeyer & Small organization, in the 1800s, was one of the leading manufacturers in the country of narrow gauge rolling stock. … The enterprise, at its peak, gave employment to over seven hundred workmen.  Although it is still a respected name among historians in the narrow gauge fraternity locally, as far as York is concerned, with the exception of a state marker commemorating the residence of Charles Billmeyer, one of the founders, Billmeyer and Small seems to have disappeared without a trace.”

“It’s been thirty years since we started researching the elusive history of the once well-known narrow gauge car maker.  The York County Historical Society, at that point in time, was housed in the former Billmeyer mansion, but the hallowed halls of the institution were barren of any builder’s photographs or other artifacts. … Now we realized the only alternative to unraveling the mystery of the long-forgotten car builder was painstaking research through the many volumes of York’s pre-1900 newspapers, the files of which, at the time, were not on microfilm.”

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.

Reading the Headlines: A Quick Index to All YorksPast Posts