York County was organized in 1749 as the first of the new counties created when William Penn's sons acquired lands “on both sides of the river Susquehanna.” The river forms its east boundary, while the Mason-Dixon Line establishes a southern edge with Maryland. The northwest border shares South Mountain with Cumberland County, while Adams County forms the west boundary. Like many of the early counties, the principal city shares the county name, reflecting in this instance the English county of origin of the early incorporators. The county contains three geological zones, the mountain edge to the north, the broad valley down the center, and the shallow ridgeline on the south. Counterintuitively, the riverfront is one of the less developed zones of the county.
In terrain and building types York has much in common with the other counties of the Piedmont, but there are significant differences. Notably, its county seat was not located on the Susquehanna River. Instead, it was relatively central on a site where Codorus Creek, the largest of the secondary streams that crosses the county, intersected the Monocacy Indian path. York became the focus of the westward extension of the Lancaster Pike (U.S. 30), which runs northeast to southwest, connecting Lancaster to Gettysburg and Chambersburg, the county seats of Adams and Franklin counties, respectively. Interstate 83 traverses the length of the county linking the state capital at Harrisburg in Dauphin County with Baltimore and Washington, D.C., to the south. Most of the county's recent development has occurred near these routes.
Townships and town names emphasize the shared Pennsylvania English, German, Scots-Irish heritage, with an emphasis toward the English organizers, evident in the name York. This does not however mark the lessening of the German tide on the west side of the Susquehanna. The secondary center of Hanover makes the German presence obvious, as does the architectural career of the county's chief late-nineteenth-century architect, John A. Dempwolf. Born in Brunswick, Germany, he worked as a carpenter, carving the ornamental detail for Stephen D. Button's First Presbyterian Church in York ( YO17). After studying at New York City's Cooper Union and training in Button's Philadelphia office, Dempwolf opened an office in York in 1876, designing the city's principal buildings for the next half century. He became the equivalent of Albert W. Leh in Bethlehem or C. Emlen Urban in Lancaster in establishing the region's architectural character—rooted in Dempwolf's memory of his German home but increasingly linked to the American setting.
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