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.

Monday, April 07, 2014

History of A Few of the Earliest Public Schools in the Town of Pelham

For many, many years I have assembled research on the history of education in the Town of Pelham.  A small part of that quest has been trying to identify the earliest school in our town.  Recently, Jorge Santiago of the East Bronx History Forum sent me a copy of a wonderful article by former Bronx Historian John McNamara.  (The East Bronx History Forum is the most active group of serious local historians I yet have encountered )

As I have noted many times, the principal population center of our Town for much of its history was City Island, annexed by New York City during the mid-1890's.  That alone, of course, suggests the unquestionable likelihood that the earliest efforts to provide organized and formal education to our children was in that part of our Town.  

The article Jorge Santiago provided me was written by John McNamara, Bronx Historian who died in 2004.  I had never run across the article before.  It provides important information about the early public school system on City Island when that area was part of the Town of Pelham.

According to that article, three of the earliest efforts to educate the young people of City Island were:  (1) a teacher named Rachel S. Fordham who conducted classes in her home during some unspecified time in the 1830s; (2) the opening of the first City Island public school (a one-room schoolhouse) on June 3, 1839; and (3) the construction of a newer and larger school house on property purchased in 1860 at the corner of Orchard Street and Main Street (now City Island Avenue).  

Rachel S. Fordham

According to family genealogists, Rachel S. Fordham was born in about 1822 in Essex, Middlesex County, Connecticut.  She was a daughter of Rufus Fordham (1782-1868) and Rebecca Shipman Fordham (1786-1823).  Clearly, if John McNamara's account is correct, Rachel Fordham would have been quite a young teacher during the 1830s -- perhaps in her mid-teens late in that decade.  

Two sources indicate that before the Town of Pelham opened a one-room school house to serve the children of City Island in 1839, classes were held in the home of Rachel S. Fordham.  See below (McNamara article).  See also Scott, Catherine A.,  Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 34 (Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing, 1999).  Although the 1868 Beers map of City Island (see detail below) shows a home and two lots owned by someone named "Fordham," I have been unable, so far, to confirm that a woman named Rachel S. Fordham taught classes in her home on City Island at any time during the 1830s.  

The One-Room Schoolhouse Opened June 3, 1839

In 1838, the Town of Pelham created City Island School District No. 2.  See Scott, Catherine A.,  Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 34 (Charleston, SC:  Arcadia Publishing, 1999).  The Town raised the money necessary to build a tiny one-room schoolhouse and began construction in 1838.  Additionally, the "school board raised money through assessments to cover various expenses, such as yearly fuel."  Id.  According to Bronx Historian John McNamara, the schoolhouse opened on June 3, 1839 (see below).  The one-room schoolhouse, shown in the image below, was located on the site of the current playground of Public School 175, 200 City Island Avenue, City Island, The Bronx, NY, 10464.  See Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 34.  

In 1847, the number of children attending the tiny school had grown such that the school was enlarged and a new teacher, Mary A. Tooker, was hired.  

Undated Photograph of the One-Room Schoolhouse
Built in About 1838 in City Island on Land Now Thought To
Be the Current Playground of Public School 175 Located
at 200 City Island Avenue, City Island, The Bronx, NY, 10464.

Larger School Built in the Early 1860s

By the early 1860s, the growing population of City Island required a bigger school.  In 1860, land owned by David Scofield located at the intersection of Orchard Street (today's Hawkins Street) and Main Street (today's City Island Avenue) was acquired for a new school.  During the early 1860s, that larger school was built and opened.  (See below.  See also Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 34.)  It operated until 1898, after City Island was annexed by New York City, when New York City built a replacement school at 190 Fordham Street (today's City Island Historical Nautical Museum), on the site of City Island's first cemetery.  (See Images of America:  City Island and Orchard Beach, p. 34.)

The school budget for oversight of this larger school seems quite quaint today.  The newspaper announcement of the passage of the budget for City Island School District No. 2 published on October 14, 1882 read as follows:

"The annual school meeting of District school No. 2, of Pelham, was held at the school house, City Island, on the 10th inst.  Mr. Thomas Martin was elected Trustee, Wm. Anderson, Clerk, William E. Loundes, Collector.  After which the following appropriation made:

For teachers salary, - $1,800
" janitor, - - - - - - - - - -       100
" fuel, - - - - - - - - - - - -       100
" cleaning school, - -         100
" taken census - - - - -         20
" incidental expenses -      50

Total - - - - - - - - - - - - - $2,195  [NOTE:  Total does not agree with the entries above.]

Seven hundred dollars is received from the State school fund.  The yearly salaries of the three under teachers were raised $100 each.  After which the meeting adjourned until the second Tuesday in October, 1883."

Source:  COUNTY MATTERS, The Pioneer [New Rochelle, NY], Oct. 14, 1882, Vol. XXIII, No. 27, p. 3, cols. 6-7.  

By 1895, shortly before City Island was annexed into, and became part of, New York City, the schoolhouse was in a dilapidated condition.  It was described as follows:


City Island School.--Francis Ward, principal and teacher of first, second and third grammar grades; one grammar teacher, two primary teachers.

The old frame structure used as a school at City Island was found in a dilapidated and unsanitary conditioin.  It is on a low, sunken lot, and Mr. Maclay suggested that the proper disposition of this would be to sell the property and to purchase a new site on higher ground, and erect a new and suitable building.  Such a site in a central part of the town was inspected by the committee."   

Source:  "A GREAT TERRITORY -- THE NEW DISTRICT AND ITS SCHOOLS" in School - Devoted to the Public Schools and Educational Interests, Vol. VI, No. 44, Jul 11, 1895, pp. 367 & 372 cols. 1-2.

The City of New York seemed to agree.  Soon the City Island School became part of the 24th Ward of the so-called "Annexed District" of The Bronx.  Then, during 1897 and 1898 the City of New York built the school that became Public School 17 located at 190 Fordham Street.  h

Detail from Map of "City Island, Pelham Township, Westchester Co.,
N.Y. [with] Town of Pelham, Westchester Co., N.Y.," Published by 
F.W. Beers in 1868 in the "Atlas of New York and Vicinity from
Actual Surveys by and Under the Direction of F.W. Beers, 
Assisted by A.B. Prindle & Others."  NOTE:  Shows the Location 
of the Second Dedicated School Building on City Island
on Property Acquired in 1860 from David Scofield on the Northwest
Corner of the Intersection of Orchard Street and Main Street (Now
City Island Avenue)

Below are a few random local newspaper references to the second school on City Island built in the early 1860s.

"City Island, April 29, 1878.


SIR--On last Friday [April 26, 1878] and Saturday evenings a school exhibition was given by the pupils of the Public School of City Island and so favorable an opinion concerning it has never been expressed of any entertainment given here before.  The representations were most admirably managed and the characters well sustained.  From the opening of the first little scene, when nearly the whole school sang in concert, until the end of the 'May Queen,' one could but look at the stage and listen to the spoken words of the charming little actors with delight, and wonder how so many little performers had been taught so sell.  The management of the whole affair was in the hands of our indefatigable principal, Mr. C. A. Bien and his worthy assistant, Miss L.M. Byrnes; and with praiseworthy skill and perseverance did they carry the affair through to a successful termination.  There are a number of pupils in our school whose talents are worthy of careful cultivation.  And we are all proud of our teachers -- Mrs. M.E. Lockwood and Miss Sara Scofield not to be forgotten in the list.  If our little ones shall long continue to be guided by such excellent mentors, we shall have a school at the head of any in the county.  May we all soon have another opportunity to witness the performance of the little ones.

Very truly,


Source:  City Island, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], May 3, 1878, Vol. IX, No. 450, p. 2, col. 5.

"It has been ascertained that the persons who took Sammy Davis from in front of the school house, City Island, on Monday the 3rd inst., were the boy's mother, who has obtained a decree of divorce from Mr. Davis, and Officer Bloom of New Rochelle.  Mr. Davis has not yet succeeded in finding the boy."  

Source:  Pelham, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Mar. 14, 1879, Vol. X, No. 495, p. 2, col. 6.  

"Mr. C.A. Bien, principal of the school on City Island has resigned and Mr. Stearns, of Long Island has been appointed in his place."

Source:  City Island, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Aug. 19, 1881, Vol. XII, No. 622, p. 2, col. 2.  

"The closing exercises of the public school of City Island will be concluded this evening."  

Source:  CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], June 29, 1883, Vol. XIV, No. 719, p. 3, col. 4.  

"The closing exercises of the public school of City Island were held Wednesday last [June 25, 1884], and were very interesting.  The school will be closed until September 1st."  

Source:  PELHAM AND CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], July 4, 1884, Vol. XV, No. 772, p. 3, col. 5.  

"The school on City Island opened Monday [August 31, 1885], with a good attendance.  The new principal Mr. Ward entered upon his duties under very favorable auspices."

Source:  PELHAM AND CITY ISLAND, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Sep. 4, 1885, Vol. XVI, No. 833, p. 2, col. 4.  

Research Note:  The City Island Historical Nautical Museum has in its collections a set of materials designated as the "City Island Schools Collection, [ca. 1838-1976]" that includes, among other things, an attendance register (1873-1899).  

*         *           *

"The Bronx In History By John McNamara:  1830s' First City Island Teacher, Rachel Fordham, Used Own Home

Historian Alfred Fordham records the fact that the first school teacher on City Island was Rachel S. Fordham, who conducted classes in the 1830s.  She taught in her own home, prior to the formation of the City Island School District No. 2, and continued to do so until the first school was opened on June 3, 1839.  

The school house was located on Main St. (now City Island Ave.) at about where the office of the H. B. Nevins shipyard is now located; it was a one-room building which was enlarged in 1847 in order to take care of the increased number of children attending it.  The teacher was Mary A. Tooker.  

The school remained there until a newer and larger one was erected and opened at the corner of Orchard and Main Sts., where the City Island Park is now located.  It was on property purchased from David Scofield in 1860.  This schoolhouse continued to be used until after annexation of City Island to the City of New York, according to the Sessions Laws of the State Legislature for the year 1895.  Some islanders now living attended that school and received their education in the Three R's, and quite a few of the graduates went on to enter colleges of higher learning and to enter various professions and become successful.  

In passing I mention only two, and hope I shall be forgiven for not mentioning many more:  Frederick Lawrence, M.D., son of Cornelius Lawrence, carpenter, builder and Long Sound and Hell Gate pilot, was born at City Island and was educated in the school on the island.  He attended N.Y.U. Medical School from 1891 to 1895 and established himself in the practice of medicine in his home town and continued to do till the time of his death in 1930.  Many people now living revere his memory; many people living here are alive because of hiim and his knowledge and experience and I am one of them.

The other man whom I have chosen is Charles McAllister, born at City Island and educated in that same school, eventually to study at Cornell University and engage in naval construction.  Later he became head of the Revenue Cutter Service (now known as the Coast Guard) and at the time of World War I, served as the head of the Shipping Board until his death.

(Next week:  City Island was worth its salt.)"

Source:  McNamara, John, The Bronx In History:  1830s' First City Island Teacher, Rachel Fordham, Used Onw Home, Bronx Press-Review, Jul. 15, 1965 (copy in possession of the author of this Blog posting).  

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