Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Clifford B. Harmon, Developer of Pelhamwood

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Just north of the Pelham station of the New Haven Line is the lovely neighborhood known as Pelhamwood. The neighborhood was developed in the early 20th Century by Clifford B. Harmon and his company, Clifford B. Harmon & Co. A full history of the neighborhood was published in The Pelham Weekly last year. See Bell, Blake A., The Early Development of Pelhamwood, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 37, Sept. 17, 2004, p. 12, col. 2. Today's blog posting will detail biographical information about Pelhamwood developer Clifford B. Harmon.

Clifford B. Harmon was one of the more intriguing and colorful figures of the early 20th Century. He made his fortune in real estate, but he made his name as one of the nation’s earliest aviators (or “bird men” as they were called in the first six or seven years after Wilbur and Orville Wright made their famous flight on December 17, 1903).

Born in 1866 in Urbana, Illinois, Harmon became the first man to fly across Long Island and reportedly “shared honors” with Claude Graham-White for the first round-trip by air over the English Channel. See The Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, Finding Aid for the Louise Benedict Harmon Papers (visited Sept. 5, 2004) . In 1905 he married Louise Adele Benedict, the daughter of Commodore Elias Cornelius Benedict described as “a Wall Street banker, broker, and noted yachtsman who counted among his friends Edwin Booth and Grover Cleveland.” Id. According to one source:

“The Harmon’s marriage was not a success, and they ‘separated’ in 1916 when Clifford Harmon left home – ostensibly to join the war effort in Europe – and never returned. Louise filed for divorce in 1924, but the case was not settled until 1929 when Harmon agreed to repay some debts owed his wife for development activities in Greenwich in which he was involved.” Id.

Harmon clearly had a flair for the dramatic. At almost precisely the time that his company, Clifford B. Harmon Co., began developing Pelhamwood, Harmon was setting flight duration records and thrilling crowds in his “mechanical bird”. For example, according to one report in the July 3, 1910 issue of the Daily Journal and Tribune published in Knoxville, Tennessee, Harmon had recently “electrified a large crowd at the Garden City Aviation Field by making a continuous flight of more than an hour and five minutes in his Farman bi-plane”. According to the report, “[d]uring the first few rounds of the course, Mr. Harmon, feeling out his machine, went only to a height of about forty feet, but when the mechanical bird responded to his every direction he rose to a height of more than one hundred feet, which he maintained for the remainder of his aerial journey.” See Cooper, Ralph, EarlyAviators.com: Clifford B. Harmon (visited Sept. 5, 2004) (transcription by Bob Davis of Harmon in a Farman Biplane, Daily Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, Tennessee], Jul. 3, 1910).

Only a short time later, Harmon “broke all American records for length of time in the air in a continuous aeroplane flight at Mineola, L.I. . . . He remained aloft in a Curtiss bi-plane for two hours and three minutes and only descended when his supply of gasoline became exhausted.” See Cooper, Ralph, EarlyAviators.com: Clifford B. Harmon (visited Sept. 5, 2004) (transcription by Bob Davis of New Record for Continuity of Flight, Daily Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, Tennessee], Jul. 3, 1910).
Not all of Harmon’s aeronautical exploits were so successful. A July 11, 1910 Associated Press report carried in the Los Angeles Times noted, in part:

“NEW YORK, July 11. – Clifford B. Harmon made an attempt this evening to fly in an aeroplane from Garden City, L.I., across Long Island Sound to the residence of his father-in-law, Commodore E.C. Benedict, at Greenwich, Ct.

Not only did he fail, but his machine fell a distance of 150 feet and was wrecked. Harmon was badly shaken up, but not seriously injured, the branches of a tree having broken the force of his fall. . . . When the crowd gathered, Harmon was found viewing the wreck of his craft.” See Nagl, Roy, Aeroplanes!: Harmon Fails. Shaken Up In Fall. (visited Sept. 5, 2004 (transcription of Jul. 11 1910 Associated Press Night Report special to Los Angeles Times).

Clifford Harmon and his company took years to develop Pelhamwood. It wasn't until the 1920s that the last lots in the new development were sold. The rich history of the little neighborhood is all the more interesting due to the colorful character, Clifford B. Harmon, whose company developed the subdivision.

An extensive obituary for Mr. Harmon appeared in the July 3, 1945 issue of The New York Times. It sheds much light on Col. Harmon's life and is reproduced in full below:


Donor of Aeronautic Trophy a Leader in Modern Technique -- Suggested World Force

Col. Clifford B. Harmon, formerly of this city, pioneer airplane pilot, balloonist and bombardier, and one-time owner of large real estate holdings in this country, died on June 25 in Cannes, France, according to word received here. His age was 79. He had been living in Cannes since he suffered a paralytic stroke several years ago.

Word of Colonel Harmon's death was received by cable through the American Red Cross by his sister-in-law, Mrs. William E. Harmon of Southport, Conn. He was buried in an American Military Cemetery at Draguignan.

Although Colonel Harmon was officially listed as a capitalist and real-estate operator, he was better known as an aviation enthusiast. He earned his reputation as an airman before the first World War and had since kept up a lively interest in it.

The donor of the Harmon Trophy for outstanding achievement in world aeronautics, Colonel Harmon will have a place in aviation history.

Born in Urbana, Ohio, son of William R. and Mary Wood Harmon, Colonel Harmon came to New York as a young man and entered the real estate business as a member of the firm of Wood, Harmon & Co. His greatest efforts were in the development of suburban estates. He became president and director of Clifford B. Harmon & Co., Harmon-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he was generally credited with having built the town. He was also active in developing suburban centers in Pelham and other villages in near-by Westchester County.

Turned to Ballooning

In 1908 Colonel Harmon, having extracted the thrills of motoring -- then hazardous -- turned to ballooning. By the summer of 1909 he earned a place among the first rank of amateur balloonists and established an altitude record of 15, 997 feet, which stood as an American mark until March, 1923.

The Colonel turned his interest to heavier-than-air transportation in 1910. He haunted the aviation field at Mineola, where the professionals, Curtiss, the Wright brothers, Louis J. Bergdoll, Hugh L. Willoughby, Claude Grahame-White and others were continuously astounding the public with air feats in their rickety craft. He purchased a Farnam biplane in France and had it set up at Mineola. After a long course and many hours of practice flying both here and abroad, he became the first amateur to qualify for a pilot's license of the Aero Club of America and immediately began a series of flights which established many records.

During the first World War Colonel Harmon served as a major in the Signal Corps, Aviation Section. He was later elevated to the rank of colonel. His chief contributions were in training of fliers and fostering research and development of machines. He had always been interested in the possibilities of aircraft as a weapon in war, and as early as 1910 had staged a bombing exhibition on Long Island for the benefit of naval officers, who scoffed at the danger of aerial bombing in view of armored decks on warships.

After the war he formed the Ligue Internationale des Aviateurs in Paris and became its first president. Its prizes have since come to bear his name and are among those most coveted by the leading fliers and aeronautical socities of the world.

Wanted Intternational Air Force

When, after the war, the League of Nations began a discussion of disarmament and an international policing of areas under controversy, Colonel Harmon became the center of a storm which reached international proportions. A close friend of leading fliers from all over the world, he suggested to the League Council an international air force which, armed to the teeth, could strike quickly and effectively at any power judged dangerous to international peace.

When his plan was read from the floor at Geneva the storm broke. British, Italian, German and other leaders declared the enthusiastic American an interferer, and their condemning of his recommendations brought with it a discrediting of his aerial exploits. Although his plan failed in its objective, it at last received serious consideration from experts and his position as a leader in aeronautics was restored.

As aviation grew by leaps and bounds, he kept pace from his offices in Paris. When Lindbergh, Chamberlin, Byrd and others were welcomed in Europe he was always a leading member of reception committees.

Part in Naval Bombing

Two months ago Colonel Harmon was interviewed at the Hotel Martinez in Cannes where he had watched first German and later American forces occupy the Riviera city.

At that time, he spoke of his first 'bombing meet' on Aug. 20, 1910, a feat which he recealled with mixed emotions.

'The idea had already been launched.' he said, 'that aerial bombing might play an important part in naval warfare, so I tried it out, and if I say now that, to the best of my knowledge, I was the first bomber, it is not to claim distinction but to say in all humility that I deplore that I or anyone else ever tried to bomb.'

During the recent liberation of Cannes, Colonel Harmon 'saw the show' from his hotel window. He described the attack by dive bombers and added that 'the nights were horrible.' Most Americans and Britons were moved inland he said, but since he was too helpless to move without aid, he was left in his apartment, he explained, adding: 'I never spoke to a German.'"

Source: Col. Harmon Dies; Aviation Pioneer, N.Y. Times, Jul. 3, 1945, p. 13.

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