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, December 04, 2014

Park Department Commissioners Condemned -- But Didn't Close -- the "Dilapidated" City Island Bridge in 1894

In 1894, as the annexation of City Island and the area known as Pelham Bay Park neared, a battle brewed between New York City and Westchester County over City Island bridge.  The bridge that was completed in 1868 was, by 1894, a decrepit and dilapidated eyesore.  That should come as no surprise.  It originally was built from the timbers of an ancient decommissioned ship known as the North Carolina, cobbled together with a draw that was taken from the old Harlem Bridge when that bridge was replaced.  As one account put it so succinctly, even when newly-built in 1868, the City Island bridge was "nothing but a second hand affair."

On the eve of annexation, New York City and Westchester County battled over which should fund the repair or replacement of the bridge.  The matter seemed to come to a head when Parks Department representatives inspected the bridge, deemed it unsafe, and posted odd warning signs that did not close the bridge but, instead, warned those who crossed it that they were doing so at their own risk and that those who crossed it in vehicles traveling "faster than a walk" were subject to a five dollar fine.  

Alas, the Parks Deparment signs apparently did not have their intended effect.  There was no general outcry to force Westchester to fund repairs or replacement of the decrepit bridge.   The City Island Bridge that currently connects City Island with the mainland and that replaced the one built in 1868 was not built until several years later. It was erected beginning in 1898 and opened to the public July 4, 1901.  It cost $200,000.

The World [The Evening World, NY, NY],
Aug. 23, 1892, Last Edition, p. 2, cols. 7-8.

It Is of Great Importance to City Island, but Not to Westchester or New York.
County Officials Await the Result of Annexation, While Park Commissioners Indulge in Bluff.

Commissioners Tappan and Clausen, of the Park Department, accompanied by two mechanics and an engineer, visited City Island on Friday of last week and made a thorough inspection of the bridge, which is in very dilapidated and unsafe condition.  After the Commissioners had rowed around several of the abutments at mean low water they became convinced that the old structure is totally unfit for public use, and pronounced it unsafe.  They caused a sign to be erected at the entrance to the bridge, which reads as follows: -- 

$5 fine for any person driving over this bridge faster than a walk.

Underneath this warning is another sign, which reads: -- 

Danger!  Bridge unsafe.  persons driving over bridge do so at their own risk.  By order of D.P.P.

If this old bridge is as dangerous to life and limb as the Park Commissioners claim it to be, why do they not stop traffic over it entirely?  That is the question that is being asked on all sides.  The driving public will have timely notice by reading the warning signs, but the horse car passengers who cannot see or heed the advice given them by the park authorities are at the mercy of the car drivers.

This visit and inspection is regarded as a mere bluff on the part of the Commissioners, as it is believed they do not intend to take any action in regard to the bridge.  Their attention has been called repeatedly for the past year to the condition of this bridge, and navigation has been suspended for the past twelve months.  The old draw could not be opened by an army of men, much less by a single bridge tender.  Complaint after complaint has been made to them without any result.  The only answer or satisfaction the boat men could get from the Park Department was, 'Wait, we will soon give you a new and improved bridge this coming fall.'


That was last winter, and the same old bridge stands there yet, unrepaired, totally unfit for use, dangerous to travellers [sic], and liable at any moment to collapse and cause large loss of lives.  

This bridge has quite a history.  It was built some twenty-five years ago by a syndicate of oystermen and boat builders on shares.  It originally cost about $45,000, and paid handsome dividends to the shareholders up to about fifteen years ago.  When it was first build it was constructed under the personal supervision of Mr. David Carll, who was one of the largest ship builders in the United States.  It was through his influence and keen business experience that the stockholders secured the old war frigate North Carolina and stripped her of all the planking and beams and built City Island bridge out of her old timbers, so that at its best this old structure even twenty-five years ago was nothing but a second hand affair.  

When by an act of the legislature the city of New York became the part owner of the bridge it went to rack and ruin completely.  True, the Park Commissioners replanked it and sent several schooner loads of stone to be dumped along side of the cribs in order that the bridge might not be found floating out in the Sound after a heavy northeaster, but they did nothing more.

It is election time now and Tammany Hall and the Park Board are eager for votes and bounteous with promises.  'You poor, suffering seafaring men must have your wants attended to at once.  We will build a new bridge for you people if it takes every cent of the $75,000 already appropriated by the last legislature for that purpose, no matter what Westchester county may do in the matter.'  This is the burden of the campaign song in this locality.

Well, time will tell.  This is an old story retold by the Park Commissioiners, and I am afraid these promises are like pie crust -- easily broken.  So much for the city side of it.  


The bridge measures 999 feet long, by about 25 feet wide.  One half of it is owned by New York city, while the other half is owned by Westchester county.  New York's side has the draw which overhangs the channel, and it is here the danger lies.  This old draw was for years in operation on the Harlem bridge before the builders of City Island bridge bought it.  A set of resolutions was presented to the Board of Supervisors of Westchester county by Supervisor William A. McAllister, of this town, early in the spring, begging of them to take some action in regard to this bridge, as it was in a very dangerous condition, and demanded instant attention.  The Board appointed a committee of three -- Messrs. Lent, Johnson and McAllister.  They made an inspection of the bridge, the crib work and the draw, and reported to the Supervisors that the bridge was unsafe and not fit to be opened to public traffic.

Then Supervisor McAllister asked that the county appropriate an amount ($75,000) equal to that appropriated by the last Legislature for the New York city side of the Bridge, and that both the communities join hands in building a good substantial iron structure that would stand forever.  But this motion of Supervisor McAllister was cried down by the other members of the Board, who claimed that they had done enough for City Island Bridge.  They had already spent $6,500 for repairing this eyesore to Westchester county, and as City Island was about to be annexed to New York city this coming fall they thought it would be more convenient to let New York build it, and they would under no circumstances spend another cent of the taxpayers' money of Westchester county on the bridge.

Now it remains to be seen what the New York city Park Commissioners will do.  If they build a new bridge as far as the $75,000 will go, what will the Westchester folks do?  One-half of the bridge will be new and the other half old and rotten.  This is the question that is troubling our citizens a far sight more than annexation."

Source:  THAT DILAPIDATED BRIDGE -- It Is of Great Importance to City Island, but Not to Westchester or New York, New York Herald, Oct. 28, 1894, North End Supplement, Sixth Section, p. 3, cols. 4-5.  

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To learn more about the City Island Bridge, early efforts to develop a bridge from the mainland to City Island and about Benjamin Palmer, Samuel Rodman, and others involved in efforts to build such a bridge, see the following.   

Tue., Oct. 07, 2014:  Legislative History of the 1775 Statute Authorizing Construction of City Island Bridge.

Tue., Jul. 22, 2014:  Stories of City Island Bridge Published in 1892.

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