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Historical Walking Tour of York Pennsylvania
Item 9 of 14
Imagine that you are an inmate being brought into justice for a petty crime that you have committed against the county of York. You are lined up with several other hard-looking men who have been sentenced to time in prison for murder, corruption, and contempt. As you take in your surroundings, you notice the building made of stone in front of you. The building looks as if it is just a regular house that someone is going to come out and welcome you inside, but it has a feeling of foreboding surrounding it. In a raspy deep voice, one of the guards yells “We are here.” The cozy looking two story stone house, which you have presumed it to be, is not so hospitable, it is the first York County Prison. The prison might be remembered as a welcoming house to all, but the prison only welcomes those who have disobeyed the law. Even though in present day, the prison may no longer be standing, it has much history in how it contributed to the community of York. The York County Jail has affected the community through detaining prisoners, keeping the law, and isolating the prisoners in a facility that is separated from the general public. The First York County Jail was built in the year 1755. The building was exceedingly small and contained two large rooms to hold prisoners. There were no individual cells. There were many windows that had bars on them to keep the inmates from escaping. An addition was added in the early 1800s. By 1854, the building had deteriorated so much that it was torn down in 1854.

  • First York County Jail-1755

In 1749, the county of York was founded, and the one building that the area was missing was a county prison. It took six years until the county built the prison. The prison was built in 1755, so imagine six years with no place to hold those who fought against the law. This prison was not the traditional prison we know and think of today. To get a real idea of how old the jail is, it did not have barbed wire on the fences to keep prisoners in, and there are no pictures that show how the actual prison looked. Though the prison might be considered “primitive,” the jail did in fact hold value of importance in the county.

            From the outside, the jail resembles a style of house that would have been built at this time. The walls of the main building were made from stone and what seems to be mortar, a cement-like substance. The jail stood two stories tall with windows that had iron bars installed to keep those who were prisoners inside the prison and away from the general public. The only reminisces of the prison are sketches that someone drew at the time that the prison stood. The prison was said to have been located on the corner of King and George streets in York County. One flaw in the design of the location of the building of the prison was that it was probably built in a populated area, which gave the inmates a better chance of successfully escaping the prison.

In 1768, in the July sessions, “the county commissioners requested that the county jail be enlarged, as it was too small for a work house and prison and the walls were not safe, whereupon the court ordered them to erect an additional building” (Prowell). The prison was running out of room, and the conditions of the prison were becoming overcrowded and unhealthy. The commissioners of the county decided to build an addition onto the main building of the prison. The addition of the jail resembles another popular style of house at this time. The walls of this addition were made with long wooden beams and plaster. This new building was most likely built to house more prisoners, house guards that were off duty, or even process new incoming inmates.

The jail had a courtyard to give the inmates of the prison an opportunity to stretch their legs, exercise, and converse with other inmates. The courtyard ran parallel to East
King Street, and the courtyard was 180 feet by 154 feet long (McClure). The courtyard was built in the shape of what seems to be like a rectangle. The members on the board of the jail wanted the prisoners to be more confined so there was less risk of them escaping the prison (McClure). With no barbed wire or any other way of keeping prisoners from climbing over the walls, the risk of them escaping increases greatly.

 The jail is a key part of the history of York County in how we saw jails and prisons in the past and how we see the traditional prison that exist today. Through the mistakes of the past and flaws in the prison’s design, engineers would be able to rebuild and create the prison in York County. Sad enough, the jail no longer stands and cannot be toured or study like other prisons from the past such as the Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A walk through the cold, long hallways would give the impression of how it felt to be detained here. If one was to see the way that the prison was build, he or she could grasp the idea of how the conditions were and how the prisoners lived their lives while being within the walls of this facility. 

First York County Jail. Photo. York County Heritage Trust Library/Archives, 1755. Print. McClure, Jim. “First York County Jail Housed Irksome Redcoats.” York Town Square. 17 September 2007. Web. Prowell, George R. History of York County. Vol. 1. Chicago: J.H. Beers, 1907. Print. Terry, Robert H. Letter to Donald Beschler. 29 June 1976. MS. District Attorney's Office, York, Pennsylvania.