Historical Markers
York House Historical Marker
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York House

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
225 E. Market St., York

Dedication Date:
July 25, 1967

Behind the Marker

The Eureka, built by Billmeyer & Small 1875
The Eureka, built by Billmeyer & Small 1875
The railroads that took shape in the 1800s were economic enterprises of unprecedented size and complexity. Their construction and operation created tremendous new opportunities for those who were able to manufacture locomotives and freight and passenger cars. The ongoing demand was so large that individual railroad companies, unable to build enough, supported a parallel industry of car builders.

The car builders who set up shop in Pennsylvania included Standard Steel Car Co. of Butler; Pressed Steel Car Co. of McKees Rocks; Greenville Steel Car Co. of Greenville; American Car and Foundry of Milton and Berwick; Berwick Forge and Fabricating, also of Berwick; General American Transportation of Sharon; Harrisburg Car Works of Harrisburg; and Middletown Car Co. of Middletown. Some of these were independent firms; others were branches of larger corporations that operated plants in other states.
Brill 1879 advertisement
Brill 1879 advertisement

Each company manufactured products that answered to different needs, and their concentration in Pennsylvania provided immediate access to a large number of railroads. Both American Car and Foundry and General American specialized in making tank cars to haul chemicals and other liquids. Pullman-Standard built boxcars for general use, as well as covered hopper cars for hauling grain, cement, sand, and dry chemicals. One of the smaller car builders, Billmeyer and Small specialized in the construction of wooden, narrow-gauge cars for both passenger and freight use. David E. Small, who had run a lumber company in York and a door-and-sash mill, began manufacturing wooden cars in 1852. After losing an arm in an industrial accident in 1853, Small teamed up with industrialist Charles Billmeyer to open the Etna Car Works, later renamed the York Car Works, and then finally Billmeyer and Small.

Before the 1870s, American railroads did not use a uniform gauge, or distance between the rails. The most common, though by no means universal, standard was four feet eight and one-half inches, said to be derived from the gauge of Roman chariots. Most southern railroads used a five-foot standard. Where any two lines of varying gauges met, goods and passengers had to transfer, causing delays and raising costs. Thus, railroads ranged in gauge from two feet to the six feet of the markerErie Railroad and the Lackawanna.
Color photograph featuring the front view of the house.
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The Billmeyer, or York House, was the pride of Charles Billmeyer, railroad car...

During the great expansion of the American railroad industry in the decades after the end of the American Civil War, a time when system mileage rocketed from 35,000 to 254,000, more and more railroads were established to build narrow-gauge lines, especially in Pennsylvania and Colorado, and to a lesser extent, Ohio and California. Promoters pushed the idea of narrow-gauge technology as an economical way to build a railroad with less capital investment than a full-sized standard-gauge line. In theory, this was a good idea, but it broke down under the realities of day-to-day railroading. Labor costs were similar on both narrow and standard-gauge lines. And the need to transfer freight at junctions between cars of two incompatible gauges caused costly delays.

While it lasted, the narrow-gauge boom in Pennsylvania proved to be a bonanza for Billmeyer and Small, which specialized in building both passenger and freight cars for the narrow-gauge trade. By 1878, they claimed to have built some 2,000 cars. Their 700 workers produced cars of various types, building twenty to thirty eight-wheel cars and from forty to fifty four-wheel cars per week. Despite the smaller size of the narrow-gauge cars, Billmeyer and Small did not skimp on amenities when furnishing first-class accommodations.

In 1863, Billmeyer built an Italianate mansion on York's East Market Street and furnished it with frescoes painted by two of the Italian artists who had worked on the Capitol in Washington. The same painters, Costagini and Scataglia, also worked on Small's nearby Brownstone Building.

By the turn of the twentieth century, with the coming of steel cars, the wooden car builder's art was fading. Though more expensive, steel vehicles were far more durable, and, for passengers, far more safe. The firm closed its doors in 1910.
Berwick postcard
Berwick postcard

Most narrow-gauge lines died out in the Great Depression. The last common-carrier narrow-gauge line in the East was the East Broad Top Railroad (EBT) in Huntingdon County, which shut down in 1956 but then reopened as a steam tourist railroad in 1960 and has run every season since then. One of its passenger cars, parlor car No. 20, was built by Billmeyer and Small in 1882 for the Big Level and Kinzua Railroad in northwestern Pennsylvania. According to local accounts, President Grover Cleveland used it while en route to fishing trips. The EBT acquired the car in 1907 for the use of its President, Charles Siebert, and later named it "Orbisonia." With its fancy gold-painted open-platform observation railing, it brings up the rear of every EBT steam tourist train today.
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