Indian Steps Museum
Built between 1908 and 1912, the Indian Steps Museum is a unique memorial and museum dedicated to Native Americans and their culture. The bungalow/American craftsman style home was constructed by Judge John Edward Vandersloot, a local attorney from York who had become enamored with all things Native American. Initially a private museum, it opened to the public in 1939, three years after Judge Vandersloot’s death. The museum’s most unique feature are the Native American artifacts, symbols and scenes that are embedded in concrete panels throughout the home, especially on its first floor. The second floor features additional artifacts displayed in a more traditional manner within display cases. The museum also hosts an annual Native American Festival in late summer. Judge Vandersloot’s former home was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.
Backstory and Context
The bluff upon which Judge Vandersloot built his home/memorial was once occupied by Native Americans as were the islands in the Susquehanna River which the home overlooks. The name “Indian Steps” is thought to have come from the fact that stone steps were carved into the hillside leading up from the river by the local Native Americans. However, they have since been submerged by the Holtwood Dam. It was this area that Vandersloot explored as he was an avid hunter and fished the river’s waters. Through his wanderings he discovered numerous Native American artifacts and began his own collection. In 1907 he decided to build a permanent home for his collection.
As he designed the building, he made the decision to incorporate some of his artifacts directly into the structure. To that end, he embedded many of the arrow, spear heads and stone axes, among other things, into concrete panels and place them at various locations in the home’s lower floor. He also centered the house on a replica of a Pueblo Kiva or council room. This oval-shaped room has walls and floors of stone and a protruding stone bench along the walls. In its center is a 2.5-ton oval, blue sandstone table surrounded by stone benches. The room also features stained-glass windows created by J. Horace Rudy of York.
The first floor, built of local cut stone, contains a large main entrance door with a limestone lintel and two life-size sculpted Native American figures created by Thomas Carrol. Above the door is the following inscription from Vandersloot, “I entreat all who pass this way to safely guard and preserve these former possessions of, and monuments to, an ancient Indian people.” The building’s second floor is a stuccoed frame structure that contained seven pine-floored guest bedrooms which are now used as exhibit space.
Atop the second floor is a four-sided hip roof with three stone chimneys extending above it. However, the structure’s most prominent feature is its three-story stone tower that contains an observation room at the top that provides an extraordinary view of the Susquehanna below. The property also contains a stone summer kitchen building and picnic shed. In 1936 it was purchased by the Pennsylvania Water and Power Company and then leased to the Conservation Society of York County in 1939. In 1956, PA Water and Power sold it to the Society for $1 and it has been in their hands since. It is thought to be the first museum opened in the country devoted to Native Americans and their culture.
Kent, Barry. "National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form." United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service. June 30, 1989. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.dot7.state.pa.us/CRGIS_Attachments/SiteResource/H096374_01H.pdf
"The story of Indian Steps." Indian Steps Museum. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.indiansteps.org/History.html
McClure, Jim. "7 reasons why Indian Steps Museum stands as 'an amazing place...in York County.'" York Daily Record. March 27, 2015. Accessed December 14, 2017. http://www.eveningsun.com/story/news/history/blogs/york-town-square/2015/03/27/7-reasons-why-indian-...
Cheney, Jim. "Learning About Pennsylvania's Native Tribes at the Indian Steps Museum." Uncovering PA. June 25, 2014. Accessed December 14, 2017. https://uncoveringpa.com/visiting-indian-steps-museum