Can York’s longtime claim as ‘Detroit of the East’ be proven?

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This 1917 Pullman light delivery truck, owned by the Laugerman family and restored by Paul Vaughn, won Best in Class among York-built cars in a past Concours D’Elegance, an annual vintage car show that serves as a York County Heritage Trust fundraiser. Background posts: Mechanical museum intrigues newcomers, Where do you go for one-stop shopping on York County history? and When a Pullman automobile became a seesaw.
Was York the “Detroit of the East” or did it just miss becoming “Detroit of America”?
That prospect was raised again in the program for the annual high-end car show Concours D’Elegance held just this past weekend at York College.
The program “Ford and fins” reprinted a short item about York auto industry penned by William H. Shank, the late York resident and noted transportation writer.
“Under slightly different circumstances, York might have become ‘Detroit’ of America,” Shank wrote… .


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Collector Fred Rosenmiller found this part of a 1911 Hart-Kraft light delivery truck in Arizona. The foundation has donated the truck to the York County Heritage Trust. Willow Creek, Pa., restorationist Paul Vaughn brought the truck back to life. (See ‘Hart-Krafts of York, Pa.)
This Detroit of the East business might be akin to the claim that the York Fair is the nation’s oldest. Or perhaps glib, but lacking content like the name of the proposed “Creation of a Nation” museum.
It is oft-proclaimed but can it ever be proven?
Shank (see below) reviewed some impressive stats about vehicle production in York, which clearly numbered more than 15,000.
But what would have been the circumstances that would have propelled York ahead of Detroit? He never says.
York’s auto industry did not survive World War I. And by World War II, local industries fueling the York Plan had to fight against the likes of Ford for those massive defense contracts. In other words, York had to do all it could with what it had just to compete in the same league with Ford and GM within about 20 years of its prime as an automaking town. Detroit was obviously off to the races in auto manufacturing.
Notice, too, that Shank did not call York the “Detroit of the East.” He said the city could have become such under “slightly different circumstances.”
Until more research is done to justify the various issues surrounding the “Detroit of the East” claim, writers and reputable historical organizations should be circumspect in using such.
Here is the Shank piece appearing in “Fords and fins:”

Because of its diversified metal-working industry, and its large population of highly-skilled Pennsylvania Dutch craftsman, York County became one of the most important automobile manufacturing centers in the United States in the early 1900s. Locally built were the “Mayflower” Truck, 1905; the “Hart Kraft” Truck, 1908; the “Martin” Truck and “Kline-Kar”, 1909; the “Atlas” Truck, 1912; the “Sphinx” Motor Car in 1914; the “Bell” in 1915; and the “Hanover” (built in Hanover) in 1917.
But by far the most significant automotive manufacturing operations ever undertaken in York was that of the “Pullman” Motor Car. The first “Pullman” was a six-wheeler, designed by A.P. Broomell in 1903. After several years of testing, this unusual vehicle was replaced by a more conventional four-wheeler, an early model which is on display at the York County Heritage Trust’s Agricultural and Industrial Museum. Over a 14-year period Pullman built between 15,000 and 20,000 cars, ultimately turning them out on an assembly line basis at the rate of a car every 15 minutes. The first Pullmans were extremely well built and fully competitive with the finest cars of the day. Just before the company’s financial demise during World War I, the “Pullman Junior” was built in competition with Maxwell, Ford and Willys Overland. It sold for $740. Under slightly different circumstances York might have become the “Detroit” of America.
Currently, the York County Heritage Trust’s Agricultural and Industrial Museum’s car collection includes nine York Built Vehicles. They include the only known surviving 1911 Hart-Kraft BXX Truck, and the only 1906 Pullman Model C.
(Excerpted from: York: First Capital of the United States.)

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.

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