York County: best government governs least

York’s Centre Square

George & Market, York

The situation

When some people think of artifacts of history, they think of small items, even those that require a magnifying glass to understand.

But buildings and other landmarks are artifacts, and the views of people toward these parts of the built environment can tell a lot about a place.

One indicator of how York County residents viewed government, for example, came about 1840 when county and court operations moved from Centre Square to the new courthouse at the location of today’s York County Administrative Center, the old East Market Street courthouse. At that time, people complained about its cost.

Instead of leaving the now-vacant Colonial-era courthouse standing — the place where Continental Congress framed America’s first constitution — workers roped the cupola, toppled it and then demolished the rest of the brick structure.

With a new courthouse in place a couple doors east on Market Street, the county courthouse, in York’s Centre Square, is pulled down. This historic courthouse, Courthouse No. 1, hosted the Continental Congress in its nine-month stay in York in 1777-78.

This was not a move to clear the square of obstructions. Market house operations continued there; the business of York County was then farming.

York County showed its low regard for government by shuffling its seat from the center of things up the street and to the right.

And people noticed. One observer said not one brick would be touched on that Centre Square courthouse, if it were up to him.

There will be a day, he rightly predicted in a newspaper story, that pilgrimages would be made to buildings connected to the “toils and triumphs of the Revolution — that they would become the Meccas of Freedom, where her sons would congregate to rekindle in their bosoms the sacred flame of gratitude to the deliverers of their country and of devotion to those principles which they had defended.”

With the courthouse demolished, York County showed more than disregard to those pilgrims. Those making decisions showed firsthand their low view of government.

In 1898, the county built the Dempwolf-designed courthouse atop its demolished predecessor. That ornate building, now the York County Administrative Center, met its own challenge in the early 1950s. It was almost demolished to make way for a building of modern design. Fortunately, it survived, expanded with wings and hosted court until the early 2000s when the York County Judicial Center replaced it to accommodate a growing judicial system.

So, if you’re keeping score: four courthouses since the 1750s, two demolished, one threatened and then expanded. Then came the new judicial center, whose design has generously been called bland.

York County Courthouse No. 2 replaced the historic Centre Square Courthouse. It was replaced before the turn of the 20th century by the current York County Administrative Center, Courthouse No. 3

Another example of how a county values its quality of place comes from a comparison of large artifacts in Lancaster and York counties – the story of stately covered bridges.

Today, Lancaster County touts its 25 covered bridges. York County was home to 25 covered bridges in 1937 and today hosts only one side of a relocated covered bridge over the Yellow Breeches on Messiah University’s campus.

Maintaining and saving these beautiful structures obviously have not been a priority in York County’s story. This shows a low view of features that add to quality of life. This shows the unwillingness or lack of power of local and county government to work toward preservation, even a lack of interest or effectiveness in lobbying state authorities to maintain covered bridges on Pennsylvania roads.

The same is true of numerous irreplaceable buildings demolished in the 1950s through 1970s in York city and elsewhere: Significant York landmarks: Victim to wrecking ball in 1950s-1970s (witnessingyork.com)

For more about York County’s lack of preservation instincts and disinclination to empower government to preserve quality of life versus development, see: The business of York County has long been business. But at what cost? (ydr.com)

Oh yes, an irony in all of this. In the mid-1750s, that original 45-by-45-foot courthouse in the center of York’s Centre Square accommodated all county functions. A county office building – “Statehouse,” as it was called – went up beside this little courthouse in the 1790s. Then a larger courthouse about 1840. Larger, 1898. And today, York County hosts one former courthouse, a judicial center and an array of space in Springettsbury Township’s Pleasant Acres and rented quarters elsewhere.

Despite our inclinations against government, county government today is big business – spawned by things like growing population and state and federal mandates.

The York County Administrative Center, York County Courthouse No. 3, was constructed atop its predecessor courthouse before the turn of the 20th century. But those columns were preserved and designed into the courthouse pictured.

The witness

It might be time to summarize some of those overarching themes that make York County, York County, as a tie-in to our low view of government and its relationship with land use:

  • As with many border counties, York County has more complexity than those living inside its borders or observing from beyond might think.
  • Border counties are influenced by their neighbors. In York County’s case, its most significant border partner is the Southern state of Maryland. Indeed, the county’s southern border marks where North meets South. It’s a southern gateway into the Keystone state, a connector between the Northeast and Southeast. And it’s the mid-most of the Mid-Atlantic States.
  • This gateway into the Keystone state? It was – and is – a wide one. It initially ran for 65 miles or about 30 percent of the Mason-Dixon Line. After Adams County separated in 1800, York County maintained a 40-mile border with the South, about 20 percent of the border. In contrast, Lancaster County shares a six-mile border with Maryland. (We drill down on the significance of these respective border lengths below and also: York County’s position on Mason-Dixon Line muddies sense of identity.)
  • Until 1865, Maryland was a slave state, and York County farmers could potentially look into neighboring fields of the 40-mile length of the Mason-Dixon Line and see enslaved people at work. According to a 1860 census map, 9.1% of neighboring Harford County population was enslaved; Baltimore County, 6.4% and Carroll County, 3.4%. A horseback ride of a day or two would bring the traveler to Howard County, Maryland with 24% enslaved and Montgomery County, 32.3%. Overall, 12.7 percent of Maryland’s population was enslaved in these months before the Civil War. As we’ve said, there’s a tendency for border counties to borrow or be influenced by their neighbors. That proximity with the South has impacted York County’s views about race for generations.
  • In the Civil War era, this border county tendency of borrowing from the North and South – not too blue and not too gray, as one observer put it – made it a nest for the Copperheads. These Peace Democrats opposed the war and sought to keep the Constitution with its racist slavery provision in place. Thus, a Republican candidate – Abraham Lincoln in 1860 and 1864 – would threaten those holding this view, and county residents voted for Democratic candidates representing the party of the South and against Republican Lincoln. You could say that county residents positioned themselves in a pragmatic middle, with abolitionists to their left and pro-slavery forces on the right. You could say that county voters’ avoidance of extremes is a hallmark of a border county facing swirling ideas by choosing safety away from those edges.
  • When York County became the fifth in Pennsylvania and first west of the Susquehanna in 1749, the large county was virtually alone on the frontier. And the mile-wide Susquehanna River, not bridged until 1814, formed a wide watery barrier versus the invisible Mason-Dixon Line. As a general rule, York County, sprawling on the Mason-Dixon Line in the wildness, took on the gritty personality of its nearest influencer, the Southern port of Baltimore, about 50 miles away from the county’s largest population center of York. Meanwhile, Lancaster, with a couple of toes on the Mason-Dixon Line, looked toward the Quaker city of Philadelphia, America’s largest city for many of its early years. As we said, this is a general rule. York County, of course, was in Pennsylvania. One survey shows that York County, for some periods in the first half of the 1800s, bought goods from Philadelphia and sold things to Baltimore. Just more complexity.
  • Early European settlers found few Native Americans on the scene when they wielded the ax to trees and applied plows to their fields. The Susquehannocks, the most visible American Indian group to live in the Susquehanna River region before European settlers arrived, were largely gone. Their absence stemmed from disease coming from contact with European traders and conflict with other Indian groups, often fighting over land for hunting to secure furs for trading with Europeans. Settlers west of the Susquehanna also found well-watered land, limestone rich soil and rolling terrain made for farming. Land so blessed became valuable from those early settlement days in the 1730s.
  • Though York County was on the frontier, a major migration path ran through its heart. The county sat by itself for some years but increasingly gained aid in growing from provincialism and isolation. A big hand came from the Great Wagon Road – connecting Philadelphia and other eastern ports with the Shenandoah Valley and points south. It ran through Wrightsville, York and Hanover. Indeed, a 1770 map shows roads, such as they were in that day, radiating from York. That wagon road from Philadelphia was joined by at least four other connectors with the South, including two directly to the Baltimore region. They became known as the Patapsco and Joppa roads. After 1838, most railroads connected with destinations in the South, the Ma & Pa, the Northern Central and a network that became known as the Western Maryland system in the southwest part of York County.
  • Lancaster benefitted from the Quaker influence within its borders and all the way to Philadelphia. The Quakers emphasized education, abolition of slavery and a sensitivity to racial differences as evidenced by their activity on the Underground Railroad. In York County, York enjoyed a Society of Friends influence, to be sure, but the main Quaker center resided north of Conewago Creek on the Northern tier of York County. There, a band of four congregations convened in meeting houses in, from east to west, Newberrytown, Lewisberry, York Springs and Biglerville. As the years passed, settlers in that region gravitated toward Harrisburg and then Lancaster and Philadelphia, compared to those residing south of the Conewago.
  • In some ways, the southwest region of York County – the Hanover area – developed separately from the rest of York County. It grew from a large land grant from the Calverts – Digges Choice – and developed earlier than other parts of York County. Roman Catholics were among its earliest settlers and in a larger concentration than elsewhere. Hanover-area’s Conewago Chapel sent out missionaries in all directions, including to York and later became minor basilica for Roman Catholics. That remote southwestern York County was even more distant from the Susquehanna, and thus Philadelphia, which gave it a more southern exposure. Indeed, a serious movement erupted in the late-1830s for those living in the Hanover area to separate from York County and form Jackson County, a nod to the Southerner then in the White House.
  • When you assess these sub-regions within York, past and present, you can find four economic centers or relationships: the northern tier with Harrisburg, southern York County and Baltimore, the Hanover area and the York area. Urban planner David Rusk made this assessment in 1996: “There are, in reality, four York Counties.” More complexity, and it must be noted that three of those four regions historically had a southward tilt.
  • Through their histories, York and Lancaster counties were both large geographically and in population compared to other Pennsylvania counties. They both hosted large numbers of one-room schools. At one point, in the 1920s, about 350 one-room schools operated in York County, a leader in the state. Farms and factories beckoned many county residents for generations to end their education after the eighth grade. In the 1800s, at least three colleges operated in Lancaster. York County did not host a four-year college until about 1970, thereby unable to wield the disrupting force for change that higher education brings to a region.

So what does all of this have to do with the property-owner-is-king thinking that has often led to unbridled development in York County?

York County Courthouse No. 4, known as the Judicial Center, was dedicated in 2004.

This long exposure with the South and its Jeffersonian and Jacksonian ideas about government – the best government governs least – have been apparent in York County since its beginning. This distrust of government has meant that the county is very comfortable with small, decentralized public units – its 71 boroughs and townships. These small governments have meant that the forces of development have received little resistance. The Southern emphasis on individual property rights coupled with a laissez-faire view of government have become part of York County’s DNA.

This was the design of the courthouse proposed to replace today’s York County Adminstrative Center in the 1950s. The commissioners eventually decided to expand the the existing courthouse – today’s York County Administrative Center.

The questions

This article takes a stance against laissez-faire local government because of its inability to plan for longterm land use and historical preservation. However, as the article also points out, York County has historically chosen a decentralized government. Why? What are the benefits? Whether you’re red or blue leaning, what are some of the arguments York Countians have made in favor of a smaller government?

David Rusk, the urban planner, claimed that York County developed into four, distinct quadrants. What are some other examples you’ve seen that either support or counter this point? Have you noticed large differences in the people, values, and environment based off if they are from York, or Hanover, or the north or the south?

Bobblehead George tells about the Colonial Courthouse, the 1976 replica of the mid-1700s York County Courthouse No. 1. It was knocked down in 1841, its successor moved from the center of the town’s square a short distance east on Market Street.

Related links and sources: Does development in York County always have to come with a loss of quality of life? G. A. Mellander and Carl E. Hatch “York County’s Presidential Elections.” June Burk Lloyd’s Universal York blog. Photos from YDR files, except bottom picture, June Burk Lloyd, and Courthouse No. 4, York County History Center.


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