There are few historic sites in York County, Pennsylvania that intrigue people as much as the former York County Prison. Dominating the Chestnut Street neighborhood in which it is found, people have always wondered what was beyond the dungeon-like facade. To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve often wondered that myself.
The prison exploration…
Last weekend on a chilly Sunday afternoon, Eric Gearhart opened the property for a small group to explore, including my daughter and I. His parents purchased the property in the early 1980s, but their dreams to open a prison-themed restaurant never materialized. The property was eventually listed for sale, but a buyer never stepped forward. A renewed effort to market this historic landmark is now in the works, and an exciting online campaign will be launched in the coming weeks. Spearheading the campaign will be Eric, Philadelphia-based photographer Scott Frederick, and myself.
If you remember the story I had previously published, Scott had expressed interest in visiting the site, and I was happy to help fulfill his dream.
Traveling from Philadelphia with Scott were Rob Dietrich and Tom Gemlik who had also wanted the opportunity to visit the prison. There were no areas off limits to us, and our only limitation was the amount of courage we had to explore the darkened corridors.
Eric gave us a short tour of the property and talked about each area we entered.
Offices. Medical rooms. The warden’s quarters. Cell blocks. And even the basement.
Before long it was time for the group to part ways and begin their work. I headed to the roof while the others moved to the lower floors. Below is a sampling of what caught our eye, with more photographs being featured in the upcoming weeks.
Through the eyes of a photographer…
It’s important to note that Scott and Rob were using a photographic technique known as HDR, or high dynamic range imaging, which gives the images a captivating appearance.
Above, from the blog post “Prison Stares” found at Scott Frederick’s Photo Blog:
“The York County Prison makes use of a center stair case and 4 cell blocks on each floor. You can get a real sense of what it must of been like to move around in this building, if you had the opportunity to as an inmate. This shade of yellow and green dominate throughout the building and are an interesting color choice. In this environment I find these colors to be rather freaky for a prison. Then again, maybe it’s the peeling paint and lighting that are giving me that vibe!”
Above, from the blog post “Hendrix” found at Scott Frederick’s Photo Blog:
Now let’s talk about the image. For me, this was one of the highlights of the shoot. Why? Why not! This is a preserved jail cell with prisoner art from the 1970′s! It’s Jimi Hendrix man! I had to run a 4 minute long exposure because this cell sits in total darkness. I didn’t realize until I was editing last night, that there were so many names scribbled on the wall to the left! Some of the names appear to be of famous singers from long ago. Others could be nicknames of prisoners that stayed in this very small double cell.
Rob captured some amazing views of the prison facade during his visit, as shown above. In this image he captured a different angle of the entrance and gives the viewer a vintage perspective of the building.
In this photograph that was also taken from Rob, the side of the prison is shown with vines creeping along the walls. An eerie metal “cross” peers down on you from above, but is really only a piece of metal hanging precariously overhead.
Samples of Rob’s photography can be seen on his Flickr page.
In this photograph, I captured an image of one of the more “complete” cellblocks. Most are missing portions of the exterior bars, while others are completely gone. The cells are shown behind a row of bars that restricts movement by the prisoners, and also the guards. To access the cells from this vantage point, you would have to exit through the door at the end of the “isle way” and enter a second door immediately beside it.
The above photograph shows a narrow corridor that divides the cell blocks and allowed workers to assess the plumbing for the cells. There is a door at either end with a metal catwalk beneath your feet, which was a bit unnerving to walk across. Although the image shows a fair amount of light, the passageway was nearly black with scarce light peeking down from the upper floor. The basement of the prison was one of my favorite areas to explore, despite its isolation and difficult access. In this photograph, you see the first area you enter after making your way down a stairway that’s missing its steps. A vintage refrigerator and assorted debris greets you while an opening in the ceiling was once used for hangings that occurred here.
This was a mere taste of what the prison has to visually offer, but without being there in person you can never understand the experience. It’s been said the building was dungeon-like, and it is that and so much more.
Seeking those with connections, information, and old photographs…
I encourage you to share this story with others as I aim to make a connection with those who have a story to tell about the property. I’m looking for information about it’s history, old photographs, anyone who may have worked there, and even those who may have been incarcerated at the site, despite the reason.
This property is private and is by no means open to the public. There are areas that are extremely dangerous and illegal entry is strongly discouraged. Please be considerate with the owner’s desire to keep trespassers from entering.
While no guarantees can be given, please contact me if you are seeking permission to access the property for photographic purposes.
- Many thanks to the Gearharts for allowing us to look around their historic property, which had some form of beauty around every corner.
- Scott Frederick is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania based photographer land, city, urban exploration, architecture and HDR real estate.
- Rob Dietrich is also a photographer based out of Philadelphia and specializes in landscape, street, and and urban exploration. He’s active in social media which he feels is a great way to learn and teach others about photography.