City of York - The First Capital of the United States

The City of York, Pennsylvania – named for York, England – was part of the building of our nation, a little-known part of history that many tend to forget, or just don’t know. As Yorkers know, their City was the birthplace of the Articles of Confederation and it was here that the words “The United States of America” were first spoken.

That big bombshell out of the way, (and yes, we have proof,) we can begin with York history sometime before 1741, when two surveyors laid out a town on the banks of the Codorus Creek That town would become York. Baltzer Spengler and Ulrich Whisler are given credit for forming the first town west of the Susquehanna River. Both were surveyors with the William Penn family, the family that gave our state its name.

In September of 1777 the Continental Congress, under threat of the advancing British, moved the location of the colonies’ central government from Philadelphia to Lancaster. Since the State of Pennsylvania’s Government was also located in Lancaster, officials decided that a move across the Susquehanna would separate the two sufficiently and the Continental Congress set up shop in the Town of York.

It was in York that the Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation, proclaimed the first National Day of Thanksgiving, and signed the French Treaty of Alliance. All of these events occurred in the nine months York remained Capital of the United States – until June 27, 1778. That is where The City of York made history for the United States, … But since then, York has been part of the growth of this nation as well as the growth of its inhabitants.

Firsts of the 1700s

First city – When York city was first laid out in 1741 by Thomas Cookson, and the first lots were offered for sale, 23 were promptly purchased in what became the first town west of the Susquehanna River.

First church – “In September of 1733, the Lutherans took steps for the organization of a congregation, the first one of this denomination west of the Susquehanna,” wrote historian George Powell in Gibson’s 1886 History of York County. “In 1744 the first log church was built in York, on the spot where the Christ Church stands.”

First stone homes – The Schultz brothers built the first stone homes in York County in 1734. John and Christina built a 2 1/2-story home, believed the first stone home west of the river. It is just east of York, near Stony Brook. Martin Shultz built his stone dwelling in Hellam.

“A well authenticated tradition asserts that on the 30th of September 1777 some of the members of the Continental Congress” stopped at the John Schultz House for “rest and refreshment.” “The saddles used by those distinguished patriots greatly excited the surrounding populace, who were then unaccustomed to such expensive luxuries,” Prowell wrote.

First roads – In 1739, an old Indian trail from Wrightsville to Maryland and Virginia was called the Monocacy Road. It was the first road laid out in the present limits of York County, according to Gibson.

The Quakers of Warrington and Newberry were responsible for the first road from the north into York. On

Oct. 10, 1745, 18 residents of Newberry, Manchester, Goldsboro and other northern villages petitioned for “The Newberry Road” that “For a few years it was called the Pennsylvania Republican, which ceased to be issued in 1889 just 100 years after is was founded.”

Firsts of the 1800s...

First hall – “About 1812 Peter Wilt (owner of The Golden Lamb tavern on East Market Street) built a hall. It was the first place of public entertainment so far as records go in the town of York. “In 1813 the Durangs who were famous actors came to York and presented two plays to large audiences in Wilt’s hall.” John Durang, who grew up in York during the Revolution, has been called “a pioneer of the American stage” by author and historian Georg Sheets.

First coal – In 1818, having heard about “stone coal,” Wilt had a half of ton of it unloaded in front of his tavern. “Wilt invited his friends and neighbors into his tavern to see how he would start a fire,” Prowell wrote. Wilt couldn’t get the coal to burn, and “his guests, having taken a dram of spirits which cost three cents a glass, pronounced the cannon stove a failure. That year, George S. Morris was the first coal dealer in York.

First telegraph – The first telegraph line extended from Washington to Baltimore in 1844, and the first message sent was about President James Polk’s election. By 1850 the line reached York, “and in September of that year, the first message was received in the York office,” Prowell wrote in another early Dispatch story. “Ovid Buckley was the first operator. He had his instrument in a book store opposite the courthouse then owned by himself and Dr. W. S. Poland.”

First motor – In 1853 Joel M. Ettinger of York made a small electric motor and exhibited it at the county fair.

First electricity – Until 1881, “electricity was for practical purposed was utilized in York by the telegraph only,” said The Dispatch.

Betty Peckham wrote for a 1946 Chamber of Commerce book that, “In 1876, Hiram Young, owner of the True Democrat, a local weekly newspaper, visited the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and brought back with him an incandescent lamp, the latest invention of Thomas Edison.” Hooking it up to a battery, Young put the lightbulb in a window of his office, “where it was viewed with great interest.”

The early account of electricity in York says six Yorkers organized a company and procured a charter from West Virginia to incorporate the York Overland Telephone, Telegraph and Electric Light Co. in the fall of 1882.

“A dynamo was installed in the building as 26 N. George St.,” according to Peckham’s account, “driven by a steam engine normally used to operate a printing press. Two wires were connected to this equipment and run to a flagpole in Center Square where four carbon arc lamps were illuminated.” “People came from miles around to witness the first electric illumination in the city of York,” wrote Peckham.

First telephone – During the fall of 1881, writes Prowell, “John K. Gross, the freight agent of the Northern Central Railway, introduced the telephone into York.” The first line extended from Railroad to Shrewsbury. Gross brought the Bell Telephone into York City soon after, the first line “form the residence of Latimer Small, North George Street, to the Codorus mills three miles north of York.”

First glitzy packaging – “The current issue of Profitable Advertising,” said The Gazette of Jan. 22, 1889, reports “A distinct novelty in flour bags that is now being used by P. A. & S. Small, proprietors of the Codorus Flour Mill, York, for the purpose of bringing publicity and popularity to their brand of Pearlicross patent winter wheat flour.

What made the art unique, says the article, is “the fact that they bear a striking poster design in colors, which is the work of the greater poster artist, Will Bradley, of the University Press, Cambridge.” “It is the first time the prosaic flour bag has entered the field of art.”

Oxygen discovered – Dr. George Holtzapple was worried a young pneumonia patient was not getting enough oxygen. According to York author Betty Peckham, Holtzapple “obtained the materials for making oxygen, chlorate of potash and black oxide of manganese,” and some equipment on March 6, 1885. “The doctor rigged up the apparatus and heated the chemicals over the spirit lamp. As the oxygen traveled up the tube into the bucket of water and bubbled to the surface, one of the men present fanned it into the patient’s face.” The boy recovered. Holtzapple served on the staff of York Hospital for more than 50 years.

First entomologists – More than 100 years ago the professor of entomology at Harvard University called Hanover’s Melsheimers “the fathers of entomology in the United States.” Frederick, and his sons John and Ernst, amassed a collection of thousands of insects from all over the world.

The elder Melsheimer, born in 1749 in Germany, became pastor of a Luthern Church in Hanover in 1789 and died in 1814.

In 1806 he published Insects of Pennsylvania, which, says Gibson’s History, described and classified 1,363 species of beetles, the first work of the kind published in the United States. Dr. Ernst Melsheimer inherited the collection, and the interest of his father and brother. The Entomological Society of Pennsylvania, formed in 1842, chose his as president in 1853. The Melsheimer collection, made up of 15,000 specimens from 5,302 species, was sold for $250 “to the distinguished naturalist Prof. Louis Agassiz,” says Gibson’s History. “They are now highly prized and are in the museum of Harvard College.”

First locomotive – The first coal burning locomotive was built in York by Phineas Davis in 1832. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad had offered a $4,000 prize to anyone who could invent a successful coal burning engine. Up to that time only wood could be used. Davis built his coal-powered steam engine at his foundry on the northwest corner of King and Newberry streets. It was finished in July, 1832, and taken by wagon to Baltimore (no trains connected the cities until 1838). Soon after winning the contest, Davis was made manager of the B&O shops, and set about building more engines. While testing one of his creations, on Sept. 27, 1835, he died when a wayward rail caused the train to wreck. He was 40. The B&O Railroad and the Engineering Society of York placed a commemorative bronze plaque in Penn Park right across from William Penn School entrance. Almost 100 years after he started his invention, a school was built in his honor in York’s east end.

And then some

First escalator – According to “A Dynamic Community Forges Ahead” published by the Chamber of Commerce in 1956, it was installed in the Bon-Ton in 1956. The building now houses the York County Government Center.

First Olympic winner – York Barbell lifter Tony Terlazzo took the Gold in 1936.

First snacks – Hanover resident John Folmer, according to tax records from the 1840s, is listed as a pretzel manufacturer. And on Jan. 10, 1945, brothers Ralph and Charles Senft first started selling what many Yorkers remember as York’s best potato chip. The plant closed on Aug. 1, 1980.

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