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.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Early History of Pelham Heights: "Then Was Formed The Idea That Gave Pelham Heights Its Birth"

Occasionally I have written of the lovely area of Pelham known as The Heights (Pelham Heights) and its residents.  For a few examples involving Congressman Benjamin L. Fairchild, considered a principal founder of Pelham Heights, see:  

Friday, April 22, 2005:  Benjamin L. Fairchild of Pelham Heights -- A Notable Pelham Personage

Tuesday, August 15, 2006:  Another Biography of Benjamin L. Fairchild of Pelham Heights 

Friday, December 7, 2007:  Another Biography of Congressman Benjamin Fairchild of Pelham, a Founder of Pelham Heights

The Heights at one point was incorporated as the Village of Pelham (one of the three villages that made up "The Pelhams" -- i.e., the Village of Pelham Manor, the Village of Pelham, and the Village of North Pelham).  

In 1909, the New York Herald published a short history of Pelham Heights.  Below is a transcription of the article.

"Interesting History of Pelham Heights, the Smallest Incorporated Village in the State

Highly Restricted Residential Community Escaped Local Annexation Through the Passage of a Special Amendment to the General Village Law and is Prosperous and Exclusive.
Pelham, with its rocks, its hills, its trees and handsome, picturesque residences, is beautiful.  In its location, history, development and comparative freedom from municipal indebtedness it is unique.  

Since Lord Pell received a crown patent to the Manor of Pelham, there has been carved out the area conveyed to the Huguenots, the present city of New Rochelle, and New York city has since acquired the more than seventeen hundred acres comprising Pelham Bay Park.  

Bordering upon New York city, contiguous to the northerly side of Pelham Bay Park, is the present town of Pelham, with its three separate villages.  In that portion of the town traversed by the main line of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad Company, and immediately adjoining the Pelham station on the south, is located the village of Pelham, known as Pelham Heights.  

The city of Mount Vernon on the west, the first station from the Grand Central Station, and the city of New Rochelle, on the east, the third station, had grown to a population of some fifteen thousand or more, before even the first home was built in Pelham Heights.  Notwithstanding its location at the second station from the Grand Central terminal, Pelham had remained a village site without a village, while on both sides villages were developing into cities.  

The reason for this otherwise anomalous situation may be easily guessed -- acres of land held by an estate.  But estates cannot forever retard progress.  Something is sure to occur sooner or later.  And something did occur, and just at a time to make Pelham Heights what it is to-day.  The entire village is now a restricted residential park. Nowhere else in the vicinity of New York city can one find an entire incorporated village restricted.  Nowhere else can one find a restricted residential section located immediately at a station. 


Once upon a time there was a superintendent of public schools who was both efficient and popular.  His visits were always a delightful intermission in the tedium of study without interrupting the opportunity for acquiring knowledge.  On one of these occasions he said, 'Boys, one way to make money is to buy land by the acre and sell by the foot.'

There was one of those boys, at least, who never forgot that saying.  Years after he came to New York.  In the practice of law the time arrived when the income from his practice exceeded living expenses.  The surplus was invested in real estate.  A portion of what is now the city of Mount Vernon was developed through his activities, and from these Mount Vernon Investments he came to know of Pelham.  

One of these Mount Vernon properties was at the easterly boundary adjoining Pelham.  One day he and his real estate manager were inspecting a new street recently completed to the Pelham line, where a high, precipitous, rocky bluff prevented it from crossing into Pelham.  'If we could but continue this street into Pelham,' said the manager, 'this property would be much nearer to the Pelham station than it is to Mount Vernon.'  'But how about the train service at Pelham?' inquired the owner.  'Same as Mount Vernon, was the reply.  Then why is there not a village over there where only hills and trees can be seen?  He found there is a village without a village, and he also found that to the south of that village site the highly restricted village of Pelham Manor.  Then was formed the idea that gave Pelham Heights its birth.

There were three tracts necessary to be acquired.  It did not require much time to secure the two larger tracts.  But a smaller one, the tract that had, in fact, retarded development, before a title could be given. When the representatives of the estate were finally in a position to sell another man stepped in ahead and made the purchase.  This purchaser, Mr. Benjamin F. Corlies, was a resident of Pelham Manor, and although he retained separate title to his purchase, the two united in one plan of improvements and restrictions.  It was Congressman Fairchild who made Pelham Heights possible. 

Pelham Heights grew, not with a boom, but with the right kind of houses and residents.  Before a plot was offered for sale, a complete sewerage system was constructed, with trunk line sewer to tide water.  A separate drainage system was also provided.  Streets and avenues were macadamized.  Gas, water and electric light were introduced.  

The unprecedented situation thus created, a village with every improvement, but free from debt, soon attracted the attention of adjoining localities.  In the Mount Vernon papers editorials appeared advocating annexation, and the Mayor of the city recommended annexation in official communications to the Board of Aldermen.  Pelham Manor sought also to include Pelham Heights within the boundaries.  

The desire was to tax Pelham Heights upon the very values created by its municipal improvements to help pay for similar improvements in adjoining localities.  The requirements of the village law as to minimum population to each square mile of territory saved Pelham Heights from the Pelham Manor incorporation.

Pelham Heights was not at this time of sufficient population to be incorporated as a village.  It contained not more than a half dozen houses and not more than thirty in population, and the village law of the State required a population of three hundred to the square mile for incorporation.  The law also prohibited the incorporation of any territory containing less than a square mile, and Pelham Heights contained only about a half square mile.


At this juncture an appeal was made to the Legislature.  The State constitution prohibited a special act incorporating a village, thererfore an amendment to the general village law was necessary.  A bill was drafted which passed the Legislature without much opposition, but when it reached Governor Morton he refused to sign it, upon the advice of his legal adviser, Mr. Lincoln, who wished no such legislation as was proposed engrafted upon a law that his Statutory Revision Commission had just revised.  But when he came to understand the situation at Pelham he withdrew his objections and the Governor signed the bill.


For a number of years since Pelham Heights has been known as 'the smallest village in the State.'  The new village became famous also for its low taxes.  For two years in succession no taxes at all were levied.  There were two old public roads in the town macadamized, and more recently, since the place has grown to some size, the taxpayers have indulged in new cement sidewalks.  But even with these added improvements the bonded indebtedness of the village of Pelham is now only about four percent of the assessed valutation [sic].  

Pelham Heights has now a population of some five hundred or more.  Restrictions apply not only to the building lots but also to the streets and avenues.  Under a law known as the Parkway law, drafted by Mr. Fairchild, and now incorporated in the consolidated laws, all of the streets and avenues in Pelham constructed by Mr. Fairchild's company, the Pelham Heights Company, have been dedicated to the village as parkways, with restrictions forbidding nuisances.  These restrictions are perpetual, and the right to enforce them belongs to every abutting property owner."

Photographs included with the New York Herald story appear below with transcriptions of their captions to facilitate searching on this Historic Pelham Blog, followed by a citation to the source of the article and the photographs.



Source:  Interesting History of Pelham Heights, New York, the Smallest Incorporated Village in the State, N.Y. Herald, Nov. 21, 1909, Fourth Section, Pg. 3, col. 3.

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