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The Narrow Gauge Railroad Movement and York; Billmeyer & Small at the Forefront

An article on the front page of the June 30, 1871 issue of the York Daily, a morning daily newspaper in York, Pennsylvania (York County Heritage Trust microfilm)

General William J. Palmer and his associates incorporated their vision of a grand western railroad, The Denver & Rio Grande, on October 27, 1870.  After General Palmer announced in a speech on February 17, 1871 his intention to build his railroad as the countries first narrow gauge railway, many other new railroads followed.  Narrow gauge fever swiftly struck the United States.


At the time General Palmer made his speech in 1871, the rails on virtually all railways were spaced 4 feet, 8-1/2 inches apart; known as standard gauge (this is incorrectly referred to as broad gauge in the newspaper article).  Palmer selected a narrower rail spacing of 3 feet, 0 inches apart for perceived economical reasons, one of which I’ve highlighted in the York Daily article of 1871.  David E. Small with Billmeyer & Small of York, Pennsylvania was a personal friend of General Palmer.

David E. Small was the driving force behind Billmeyer & Smalls’ rapid expansion into the forefront of the narrow gauge movement.  During the next 10 years, close to 10,000-miles of narrow gauge track had been laid in this country.  All that mileage needed railcars, which Billmeyer & Small were all to happy to supply.

The following is a word-by-word copy of the article published on the front page of the June 30, 1871 issue of the York Daily, a morning daily newspaper in York, Pennsylvania.

NARROW GAUGE AND YORK.  Many of our readers who first glance at the unique heading of this article, will wonder what it all means.  All who are at all conversant with the great questions of the day, must see that not the least among them is that of the Narrow Gauge railroad interest in this country, as a matter of economy, as well as utility, under circumstances most deleterious to roads of a broad gauge.

These roads have been in successful operation for a number of years in England, Scotland and Wales; but their introduction to America was reserved for the present year, when through the superior sagacity, and general business qualifications of Gen. W. Q. Palmer, formerly of the Pennsylvania railroad, and then of the Kansas Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande railroad (3 ft. gauge) was projected and is rapidly approaching completion.

When finished, this road will reach its iron arm from Denver in Colorado, over mountain into valley, through the canyon, and down where the shining ores woo the toil and sweat of man, till its touch shall bid the land of Montezuma lay down the sword for the plow, and the spear for the pruning hook, and through this channel aid us in dispensing peace and plenty through the land.  It is often asked, why not build at once a road that will carry more, last longer, and in every respect be like those now in general use?

Perhaps the most comprehensive answer to this query will be manifest to our readers in the quaint remark of a friend, who, in speaking of the advantages of the narrow over the broad gauge roads, suggested that if he couldn’t afford to wear broad cloth breeches he’d wear linsey woolsey, for breeches he would have.  This remark of our friend may not in itself be a knock down argument for narrow gauge roads, but when we remember that strength and cheapness are combined with utility, we can see its force as a figure of speech.

The cars for these roads are correspondingly reduced in size, which cannot be objectionable, since the carrying strength is proportionately greater in the small cars, as is demonstrated on narrow gauge roads now in actual operation, where the proportion is three tons of load, to one of car weight; while on the broad gauge roads it is but about one ton of freight to one ton of car weight.  Here is an advantage which has given anxiety to very many fertile brains, without a satisfactory remedy for the trouble; and still we must look on a broad gauge car as a cumbersome thing, that can comfortably carry only its own weight; while these pigmies will carry three times theirs without creaking.

Railroad men throughout the land are working up to their interests in this matter, and already a score of narrow gauge roads are earnestly talked of and that too by men who mean work.  Among those whose practical minds have grasped the idea as feasible, and destined to work a revolution in railroading in this country, so far as cheapness of transportation and economical construction are concerned, is our wide awake firm of Billmeyer & Smalls, who are even now showing their faith by their works, and erecting what will make, when finished as it soon will be, the largest Car Establishment in this part of the country.  This new structure, independent of their already more than extensive works, will be brick, 60 feet front by 170 feet in depth; and when finished will be supplied with all the machinery and fixtures of a first class shop, and be ornamental as well as useful.

This building is designed exclusively for the manufacture of narrow gauge cars, and will be capable of turning out from ten to thirty new cars each working day.  The energetic chief of this firm, Mr. D. E. Small, has the honor to be, with General Palmer and others, a pioneer of the Narrow Gauge Railroad interest in America, and through him his firm have secured the building of the first one hundred narrow gauge cars ever used in this country, most of which are already far on their way to The Rocky Mountains.  They are for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad; which we have before referred to.

Was York, Pennsylvania (via Billmeyer & Small) first?  As the article claimed: in “building of the first one hundred narrow gauge cars ever used in this country.”  Check out this post for the answer.

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