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The Susquehannocks and their native American predecessors have peopled the land, later known as York County, for centuries. The Susquehannocks are believed to have arrived along the lower Susquehanna from the mid-1500s to mid-1600s. They created villages on the river’s west bank, in future York County, about 1675. Native Americans preceding the Susquehannocks left significant artifacts – petroglyphs or rock carvings – on rocks in the Susquehanna. How to connect with this moment: Native Lands County Park in Lower Windsor Township offer a walking tour that interprets former Susquehannock grounds.
By about 1730, Digges was granting land deeds in future Hanover and surrounding townships. The Hanover area, proud to this day in its independence, grew from its Maryland roots. Much land settlement elsewhere in York County came from settlers with Penn licenses. How to connect: The Hanover-area boasts of numerous well-illustrated outdoor storyboards: Walk the Heart of Hanover Trail or check it out digitally.
About three years later, Thomas Penn authorized Samuel Blunston to issue licenses for land on the west side of the Susquehanna. In 1736, chiefs of the Five Nations sold land west of the Susquehanna to the Penns reaching “to the setting of the sun.” A great migration of German, Scots-Irish and English settlers follows. Wrightsville becomes the primary town of entry into the county and points far to the west and south. How to connect: Visit Columbia’s Wright’s Ferry Mansion, former home of a Wright family member, Susanna Wright. Visit the campus of Guinston Presbyterian Church in southeastern York County, where three generations of church buildings stand. The oldest goes back to 1773.
British surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon establish the border in 1763 to 1767. The Mason-Dixon Line resolves the conflict and later becomes more significance as a marker between North and South in the 19th century. In the initial survey, York County shared 65 miles of the 233 miles surveyed with Maryland, a Southern state. In contrast, Lancaster’s border with Maryland measured about 25 miles. This wide, shared border with the South meant extensive trade and family relationships in Maryland and points south and baked a blend of Northern and Southern perspectives into York County life. How to connect: See an original crown stone and a replica at Wiley Station, Pennsylvania Route 24 and Maryland Route 23.
York County separates from Lancaster County to become the fifth county in Pennsylvania and the first west of the Susquehanna River. The separation was fueled by the demand for sheriff’s protection west of the Susquehanna. The village of York is laid out eight years before at a point where the Monocacy Road crossed the Codorus Creek. How to connect: Visit the York County Archives, keeper of records that go back to the county’s beginning.
Here, the delegates from 13 states adopt the Articles of Confederation, America’s first constitution, and ratify treaties with France. These pacts made France an ally against Britain in the American Revolution. How to connect: A replica of the Centre Square courthouse that hosted Continental Congress, filled with exhibits, is open to the public.
The Revolutionary War sparked social and economic change that converts this isolated German village of farmers and craftsmen into a mainstream incorporated American town, a borough. Other key dates: Hellam Township formed, 1739. York became a village, 1741. York County separated from Lancaster County, 1749. Adams County was erected from western York County, 1800. Hanover was incorporated as a borough, 1815. York became a city, 1887. Springettsbury became the last township to form, 1891. Jacobus formed, the last borough to incorporate, 1929. How to connect: Parts of the Gates House/Plough Tavern complex date back to the earliest days of York village.
According to the church’s history, the structure is the oldest Catholic building made of stone in America, completed in 1787. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, as the church is officially known, became a sender of missionaries and the planter of churches in York County and beyond. It can be seen as the Mother Church for Catholics in Pennsylvania west of the Susquehanna. How to connect: Visit the Conewago Chapel’s ornate sanctuary in Edgegrove, Adams County.
Blacks secretly torch the buildings possibly in response to the conviction of Margaret Bradley, a Black woman, for allegedly trying to poison York residents Sophia and Matilda Bentz. The plot is discovered. “So secret and artful was the conspiracy, that though the fires were known to be the work of incendiaries, yet no suspicion was for a long time attached to the blacks of the place,” a historian wrote. “On nearly every successive day, or night, for about three weeks, they set fire to some part of town … .” How to connect: For scores of stories about York County’s Black history, see this Black history page.
York now has a ready supply of water to fight fires and boasts of its supply of fresh water. Settlement along Codorus Creek apparently is making its flow unfit for human use. How to connect: See the mosaic mural on Mason Alley, to the rear of the York Water Company, 130 E. Market St., York.
With his family, he operates a station on the Underground Railroad, risking liberty and fortune in whisking freedom seekers through the county and eventually to Canada. Major Underground Railroad routes ran through the county, with its wide border with the South, and an untold number of county residents contributed to this loose-knit network. How to connect: The former Goodridge 123 E. Philadelphia Street home in York is now a museum, the Goodridge Freedom Center. Also, the Warrington Meeting House hosted a congregation of Quakers, some active on the Underground Railroad. Quakers still meet in this stone structure in northwestern York County, part of which dates to 1769.
The county’s proud Revolutionary heritage, thus, is alive 50 years after the war at the dawn of the Jacksonian period. Lafayette was in York in early 1778 to meet with the Continental Congress in pursuit of a military command. How to connect: A statue of Marquis de Lafayette stands outside the Golden Plough Tavern/Gates House complex on York’s West Market Street.
Shrewsbury, 1832, and Wrightsville, 1834, form astride heavily traveled turnpikes. The other two, Lewisberry, 1832, and Dillsburg, 1833, sit north of the Conewago Creek and point to a growing population in that uneven red sandstone landscape. A band of Quaker Meeting Houses – Newberrytown, Lewisberry, Warrington, Huntingdon and Menallen – congregate in northern York and Adams counties. These English settlements give York County’s northern tier an identity separate from those below the Conewago. They are oriented to Harrisburg and their Quaker abolitionist beliefs provide fertile soil for enslaved people seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad network. How to connect: Dillsburg-based Dill’s Tavern and the Northern York County Historical and Preservation Society offer tours.
Rail service, later known as the Northern Central Railroad, reaches York from Baltimore, developing a ready, Southern market for York County’s goods and social connections with Maryland families. In 1847, telegraph lines reach York. At least five other rail lines operate in the county: Maryland and Pennsylvania and Stewartstown railroads in southeastern York County, the Western Maryland, Baughman Valley and Hanover Branch railroads in southwestern York County. How to connect: The Hanover Junction Trail station operates as part of York County Parks System - about midway between York and the Maryland Line. Three excursion rail services operate in the county today: the Ma & Pa, Stewartstown and Northern Central railroads. The Ma & Pa hauled slate quarried by Welsh workers in the Delta-Peachbottom area. Visit a restored Welsh quarryman’s cottage in Coulsontown near Delta.
An early land-use controversy emerged before and during the demolition of the Centre Square Courthouse, the county quarters that for nine months housed the Continental Congress in the American Revolution. Some argued against its demolition. A new courthouse had been erected east on Market Street, perhaps a vote by the population that government no longer needed to take center stage in a Democratic county that was wary of government. The market sheds would remain, suggesting the primacy of agriculture and commerce over that of government. How to connect: A replica of the old Centre Square courthouse, built in 1976, operates as a museum a couple of blocks west on West Market Street.
Robert E. Lee’s troops, representing deconfederation, stepped on York County soil the day before, June 27. That was 86 years to the day after Continental Congress left York after adopting a document of confederation, the Articles of Confederation. The Confederate advance prompted members of York’s Committee of Safety to ride to the village of Farmers, 10 miles to the west, to surrender the town. That controversial action – seeking out the enemy to surrender in a theater of war - shaped the way the York-area viewed itself in subsequent decades. The community predominantly looked back on its significant American Revolution and World War II moments. That despite hosting a major Civil War hospital, helping to provision a camp to season green Union recruits and persevering through more than 600 dead in blue uniforms. That’s the highest number of county casualties sustained in any war. Elsewhere in York County, Union troops and volunteers stop the Confederate advance by burning the Susquehanna River bridge in Wrightsville. Fighting on the streets of Hanover, Union cavalry delay Confederate troopers from rejoining the main Confederate Army until the second day of fighting at Gettysburg. How to connect: Go to the ramp beside the John Wright restaurant in Wrightsville, and look downriver. You can see piers stretching across that mile-long covered bridge that Union forces burned to keep the Confederates from crossing. Check out the many explanatory historical markers near the river.
Farmers had sold their goods at the market sheds in that spot since the county’s earliest years. But in 1887, with York a newly crowned city, the sheds stood in the way of the movement of goods and workers through this crossroads via trolleys and other conveyances, as the Industrial Revolution buzzed. The development verses agriculture tug of war continued for decades. In the early 1980s, the amount of developed acreage in the county exceeded that used for agriculture for the first time. A recent battle between these forces came in the mid-2000s as the last remaining prime farmland overlooking the Susquehanna River – Lauxmont Farms – was waged. That dispute sparked the origin of Native Lands and Highpoint county parks. How to connect: Visit Highpoint County Park and take in the views in all directions.
Toward the end of this period, York County hosted some of the largest industrial plants in America for the making of ice and refrigeration machinery, bank vaults and safes, water turbines, artificial teeth, wallpaper, roofing paper, pretzels, baker's machinery, auto tire chains, book paper and commercial auto bodies. How to connect: Visit York’s Agricultural and Industrial Museum, where exhibits underscore this past industrial might.
This group was among many social and recreational organizations that formed in these years. The Catholic Woman’s Club is another example. Sometimes women’s clubs formed – the York Woman’s Club is one - to give women networking opportunities afforded in men-only clubs. The Royal Whist Club met for those in the Black community who enjoyed the game. Bowling leagues organized with employer sponsorships – some companies seeing such support as good for morale in times of war and peace. How to connect: The lobby of JCC features an unforgettable Holocaust Memorial: “The Six Million.”
Three years later, the Susquehanna Trail Association is formed that would result in York County’s inclusion in a 450-mile ribbon from Niagara Falls, N.Y., to Washington, D.C. Williamsport officials, whose town stood at the that trail’s midpoint declared the road was completed in 1924. In 1940, the Pennsylvania Turnpike opens as America's first modern limited access highway and runs through northern York County. In 1959, Interstate 83 opens north-south through York County, between Harrisburg and the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Baltimore and its ports. The limited access turnpike and interstate gained popularity versus the older roads, the Lincoln Highway and Susquehanna Trail, respectively. Today, York County remains an attractive transportation hub for industry and warehousing. How to connect: The Lincoln Highway in York County is detailed on the Lincoln Highway Legacy digital site. Also, a museum devoted to the Lincoln Highway, the Lincoln Highway Experience, can be visited in Ligonier in western Pennsylvania.
About 200 county residents died in uniform in battle or from disease in World War I. The Spanish flu caused at least 350 county deaths and likely more. A tent hospital was set up on York Fairgrounds, the York Fair was canceled and life was severely interrupted. A century later, the COVID-19 pandemic, often compared to the Spanish flu, counted more than 115,000 total county cases and about 1,500 deaths. How to connect: A rare World War I monument is the focal point of the square in Jefferson borough’s heart. It’s joined by a World War I field piece.
The assailants suspected the victim - unfairly, as it turns out - of practicing witchcraft on one or more of the defendants. The proceedings show 18th-century superstitions exist in local culture at a time when the county’s industrial and technological power reaches new heights. These trials gained international attention and marked the most-watched criminal proceedings of the 20th century. How to connect: Watch a master storyteller, J. Ross McGinnis, give a spellbinding presentation about the Hex Murder and trials.
The Great Migration was marked with two major developments: The founding of Crispus Attucks Community Center provided social and recreational services to the Black community - some public services were off limits to Blacks. And two segregated schools went up in York – Aquilla Howard and Smallwood schools. Federal policies in the Great Depression proved detrimental to Black residents, both longtime residents and newcomers. Redlining and deed restrictions made it difficult for Black families to better themselves in housing. How to connect: Crispus Attucks Community Center in York hosts a gallery of African-American art.
A major labor unrest erupted in Red Lion at a time that cigar-making machines in company-owned factories were replacing hand-rolled cigars in backyard sheds in the borough and other York County towns. About 20 people in Red Lion were injured in the riot. Women led the protest, taking tear gas and billy clubs from deputies. Cigarmaking, textile factories and milling were among primary means of employment in many towns in York County and the City of York. How to connect: Visit the Red Lion Area Historical Society’s Museum in the former Ma & Pa Railroad station. The story of textiles is told at the Teaching Museum for the Fiber Arts and Textiles in Winterstown. And the story of milling in a mill operated by two sisters for decades - is taught at the Wallace-Cross Mill Historic Site in southeastern York County.
The popularity of automobiles and buses contributes to the demise. Trolleys fostered suburbanization as housing grew along their electrified lines but paled in comparison to automobiles in enabling residents to travel from rural homes to York city and elsewhere. How to connect: A trolley that rolled on York County streets, No. 163, carries riders at Rockhill Trolley Museum in Huntingdon County. Trolley 123 is on display at the Agricultural and Industrial Museum in York.
Then at year’s end came the advent of World War II with the attack on Pearl Harbor. How to connect: A major public art memorial to World War II servicemen stands in the heart of York, at Continental Square. And it’s a fun game to try to find the war memorials that stand in most every York County town.
Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, Army chaplain, died a hero in the sinking of the S.S. Dorchester and is counted among about 570 in uniform who died in World War II. Gen. Jacob Loucks Devers, York native, helps lead the Allied invasion of Europe. How to connect: The Four Chaplains mural is one of 18 in the Murals of York program. Check out this walking tour of the murals.
County schools are organized into 16 districts. How to connect: The Wills one-room school on East Prospect Road near Yorkana holds occasional open houses and can be toured by appointment.
In 1996, company officials said Cat was closing most of its York operations. About that time, expansive Haines Acres in Springettsbury Township is built tract by tract, and the York County Shopping Center opens nearby in 1955. The York Mall, the York area’s first covered shopping center, opens in 1968. York reaches its capacity in population at just under 60,000 in 1950 and lacks building space. With all of these developments, York-area residents can live, work and shop in virtually the same neighborhood. Meanwhile, a retail vacuum grows in York and other downtowns throughout the county. How to connect: The Rusk Reports of 1996, 2002 and 2019 assess the negative impact of sprawl on York County’s quality of life.
By 1980, this Latino group formed a congregation at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on East South Street. This parish became the Cristo Salvador congregation. The Greek community, in York since at least the turn of the 20th century, had grown enough to support a new church in suburban York Township. In the early 1960s, two Latino families - the Edwin and Delma Rivera family and the Jose and Gloria Hernandez family – arrived. These families and others would provide leadership in a growing Latino population, a group that stands as the county’s largest non-white population in the 21st century. How to connect: For many stories, photos and videos about York County’s Latino community, please see this page.
The sale of privately owned York Corporation to Borg-Warner is among the most visible. It operates today as Johnson Controls. The sale of York Peppermint Patties, internationally known local icon, is another. York County loses many more iconic companies, but several remain: Harley-Davidson, Voith Hydro, Glatfelter paper (now Pixelle) and York Barbell, among others. Late in the 20th century, numerous new businesses, many service oriented and often distribution and information related, open and most local businesses reposition themselves. How to connect: Visit the Weightlifting Hall of Fame at York Barbell in Manchester Township. And York’s Harley-Davidson assembly plant offers factory tours.
Migration from Maryland and elsewhere makes the county’s population among the state’s highest. How to connect: The Horn Farm Center for Agricultural Education was formed by preservationists concerned about the loss of the farm’s and other county agricultural acreage to development.
They gain county elected posts, the York mayor’s office and multiple state legislative seats. York selects several black police chiefs, and minorities gain seats on prestigious boards and membership in social clubs. Gaining these positions is part of a 200-year upward arc for Black people; York County stood at second in the state in enslaved people in 1790 with 499. Still, the third Rusk Report in 2019 shows the Black poverty rate at 3.5 that of the rate for whites. The Latino rate is 5 times the rate for whites. Overall, the noted urban planner’s report shows the county’s family poverty rate has risen in the past 50 years from 5.6% to 7.3%. How to connect: Check out all three Rusk Reports.
The college, thus, became the first four-year institution of higher learning in county history. The majors: accounting, behavioral sciences (psychology and sociology), business management, history and social science and medical technology. An interesting comparison with Lancaster County: The first four-year graduate from York College received a diploma about 1970. Meanwhile, Lancaster hosted at least three four-year schools for decades before that – Millersville, Franklin and Marshall and Elizabethtown. How to connect: York College hosts a public archives and special collections room in the Schmidt Library.
A charrette, a type of civic group therapy, brings the community together in search of solutions and contributes to the end of widespread violence in subsequent summers. It brought reform agencies in housing, public health and public transportation. Justice was meted out in the two deaths – the slaying of Lillie Belle Allen and Henry Schaad – in the early years of the 21st century. Nine defendants were convicted or pleaded guilty in the death of Allen, a visitor to York. Three defendants were brought to justice in the death of Schaad, a York patrolman. How to connect: Visit the two benches, memorial to the two slain in the York race riots. The memorial sits at the southeast corner of Farquhar Park.
The county sustained devastating floods in 1817, 1884 and 1933, but the community is unprepared for the magnitude of Agnes’ rage, deaths and devastation. How to connect: The Schmidt & Ault Paper Co. sign on the side of the York College-owned former paper mill bears high-water marks for the 1933 and 1972 floods.
The resulting loss of cooling liquid causes damage to TMI unit 2’s reactor core. Fearing radiation leaks, scores of people in the county and elsewhere in Central Pennsylvania evacuate the area. How to connect: Travel to Goldsboro and its river access in northeastern York County and look across the Susquehanna. You’ll be able to take in parts of Three Mile Island and the closed-down nuclear power plant.
An exchange of racial slurs and obscenities between the two groups resulted, and many of an estimated 200 to 300 townspeople joined in, siding with the bikers. On the next night, July 14, an estimated crowd of 500 townspeople confronted the racially mixed group gathered in a building at Chestnut and Carlisle streets. An altercation followed, and the two groups threw stones, bottles and other objects at each other. Other racially motivated incidents later erupted before a midnight curfew ended the faceoffs. In response, Hanover United, made up of pastors, congregations and other community members, reaffirmed positive attitudes toward equality, nondiscrimination and cultural diversity in the community. How to connect: This story provides more detail about this July 1991 event.
A diverse group embraces and lobbies for the county’s newest residents – jailed for more than three years without formal charges until their release. An expanding county prison becomes a center for illegal immigrants. How to connect: Some of the art pieces that the detainees made in prison to underwrite legal efforts are displayed at the York County History Center and the Goodridge Freedom Center.
Perhaps the anticipated Y2K bug took another form. For example, the Race Riots trials brought justice in two race riot-era murders. Though Mayor Charlie Robertson was acquitted in one murder, he withdrew for election to a third term. School violence struck York County with a machete attack on students and administrators in a Red Lion elementary school. That was followed by a shooting – a student shot and killed a middle-school principal in Red Lion. A New Freedom teen, Zachary Witman was convicted in the vicious slaying of his brother. Twenty-five military men in uniform with county ties died in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and eight more were killed in the next decade. In civil court, two highly controversial cases were decided. A land-use dispute between the York County commissioners and Lauxmont Farm landowners resulted in the creation of Native Lands and Highpoint county parks. And a federal court judge ruled against the Dover Area School District in a case involving the district’s plan to add intelligent design language in science curricula. How to connect: For stories about the York Race Riots and trials all in one place, see this Journal of York County Heritage.
Notably, professional baseball returned to York in 2007 after a 38-year absence. The York Revs played in the then-new Sovereign Bank Stadium, today’s PeoplesBank Park. The Royal Square district followed with revitalization efforts incorporating King, Queen, Duke and Princess streets. WeCo, the Market District and other neighborhoods near the downtown also drew investment. How to connect: Check out these top York County news stories of decade, 2000-2009 (ydr.com)
Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff’s Louis J. Appell Jr., the leader of a team of wealthy community leaders, dies. This group helped sustain the community for decades. Give Local York, which works at grassroots fundraising, is the most visible replacement, raising small donations from thousands of people to replace the thousands of dollars in giving from this handful of philanthropists. A wealth of well-meaning, effective and often diverse grassroots organizations was stepping up to provide sweat equity and community leadership. How to connect: A look back at 10 megatrends that shaped York County in the 2010s (ydr.com)
Sources and references: James McClure’s Never to be Forgotten, “25 meaningful moments in York County’s past.” Stephen H. Smith’s YorksPast blog and June Burk Lloyd’s Universal York blog, both on Yorkblog.com. York County History Center files. Susquehanna Heritage’s River Roots blog. See also:; Late June marks pivotal moments in York, Pa.'s, history - York Town Square (yorkblog.com); 10 moments that changed the course of York County history (ydr.com);