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, February 23, 2015

Evolution of the Various Villages and the Town of Pelham: A Summary

A member of the "Remembering North Pelham" Facebook group has asked about how the Town of Pelham and the two Villages within the Town came to be, what services they provide, why there once were a Town and three villages and why there now are two villages and a Town.  The history of the evolution of the various settlements, villages and the Town is quite fascinating and is the subject of today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog.

Evolution of the Manor of Pelham in the 17th and Early 18th Centuries

After Thomas Pell acquired a vast acreage from local Native Americans on June 27, 1654, the area came to be known as the Manor of Pelham.  Very roughly speaking, the area encompassed today's Westchester Square in the Bronx with nearby City Island and today's Pelham Bay Park to Eastchester, Mount Vernon, Pelham, New Rochelle, and more.

Shortly after acquiring the vast swath of land encompassing more than 50,000 acres, Pell installed settlers in the area near today's Westchester Square.  The settlement became known as West Chester by the English settlers and Oostdorp by the Dutch in New Amsterdam.  A little more than a decade later, on June 24, 1666, Pell sold a vast swath of his land to the original ten families who established the settlement of Eastchester which encompassed a portion of today's Pelham Bay Park, the City of Mount Vernon, and the Town of Eastchester.

There is evidence that Thomas Pell permitted a handful of settlers to live on the remainder of his lands before his death in late September, 1669.  For the most part, however, his remaining lands remained virtually uninhabited at the time of his death.  A year after Thomas Pell's death, his nephew, John Pell, arrived from England and took control of the lands and property Thomas Pell had bequeathed to him.  

On September 20, 1689, John Pell and his wife, Rachel Pinckney Pell, sold off another vast swath of the lands originally acquired by Thomas Pell.  They sold roughly 6,000 acres of land (and donated another 100 acres to be used as a church property) to Jacob Leisler for the benefit of Huguenot settlers who founded today's City of New Rochelle.  This sale left John Pell with lands including much of today's Pelham Bay Park, City Island and various other nearby islands, and the lands that comprise today's Town of Pelham.  

Slow Population Growth and Creation of the Town of Pelham by State Statute

As the Pell family grew and descendants of John and Rachel Pell multiplied, various bequests by Pell family members to their offspring over time meant that during the 18th century, the Manor of Pelham was owned by relatively few members of the Pell family.  Indeed, for much of the 18th century, the Manor of Pelham was sparsely-populated principally by members of the Pell family with notable exceptions.  The 1790 U.S. Census, for example, showed only 199 residents in the entire Manor of Pelham consisting of 45 free white males sixteen years or older, 31 free white males under sixteen years old, 84 free white females, 1 "other free person" (likely an emancipated slave), and 38 slaves.  See Tue., Mar. 22, 2005:  The 1790 U.S. Census Information for the Township of Pelham.

On March 7, 1788, the New York State legislature enacted a statute creating a number of towns in Westchester County including the Town of Pelham.  Thus, for the first time, the Town of Pelham existed and encompassed an area including much of today's Pelham Bay Park and all of City Island in the Bronx as well as all lands within today's Town of Pelham.

Rise of Railroads and Far-Flung Settlements Within the Town of Pelham

During the early 19th century, there likewise was very slow growth in the local population.  The 1840 U.S. Census shows the Town of Pelham with a total of 789 residents.  An interesting thing was beginning to happen, though.  

The Long Island Sound shore from Pelham Neck (today's Rodman's Neck, also known as Pell's Point) was becoming the focal point of wealthy businessmen and financiers who began building country estates along the waterfront.  Many mansions and country estates sprang up including some of the finest in the region at the time such as:  "Hawkswood" on Pelham Neck, built by weathy lawyer Elisha W. King in about 1829; Bolton Priory built by the Rev. Robert Bolton and his family in 1838; "Bartow Mansion" (today's Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum), built by Robert Bartow before 1842; "Hunter's Mansion" on Hunter's Island built by John Hunter, a wealthy merchant who built his fortune in the auctioneering and commission business shortly after he acquired the island in 1812; and, many more mansions and estates.

The existence of so many massive and elegant mansions began to give the area a special cachet.  The area was becoming synonymous with wealth and prestige and was becoming known as a playground for the wealthy who wished to escape New York City.  Only a few decades later the second country club in the nation sprang up and attracted wealthy New York City and local residents.  Col. Delancey Kane began running his "four-in-hand" Tally-Ho coach on day trips from the Hotel Brunswick to Pelham Manor.  To many throughout the northeast, "Pelham Manor" was synonymous with wealth, the leisurely class, and country estates.

As the population of the Town of Pelham grew in the first half of the nineteenth century, City Island (in today's Bronx) became the population center of the Town where most of the residents of the Town lived.  Things began to change, however, when the railroads came to Pelham.

In December, 1848, the first track of the New York and New Haven Railroad was completed and trains began to run through the Town of Pelham.  Within the next three years, the suburban settlement of "Pelhamville" was laid out around the tiny new Pelhamville train station.  Lots were marketed and sold to working class residents of New York City as a suburban refuge from New York City.  Pelhamville began to grow as a populated settlement that was considered somewhat distant from City Island, still the main population center of the Town.

Pelhamville continued to expand for the next two decades when a second railroad line was opened through the Town.  The second line was the Harlem and Portchester Railroad (the so-called "Branch Line") that opened in November, 1873.  The Branch Line was laid closer to the Long Island Sound and included two stations within the Town of Pelham:  Bartow Station along today's Shore Road near the road to City Island; and Pelham Manor station.  The opening of the Branch Line prompted real estate speculation in the area as well as major efforts to develop new suburban subdivisions that came to be known as Bartow (or, Bartow-on-the-Sound near the stables along Shore Road in today's Pelham Bay Park) and Pelham Manor.

At about this time, local landowners and real estate speculators created a stock company known as the Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association.  It controlled much of the land from the Long Island Sound to today's Colonial Avenue and, in certain instances, beyond.  The Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association began by selling lots and building homes in an area along today's Esplanade and extending in the area toward Prospect Hill.

Thus, with the advent of the two railroad lines through Pelham, several additional population concentrations began to compete with the main population center on City Island.  In fact, over time Pelham residents on the mainland began to resent Pelham residents who lived on City Island because the more numerous City Island voters were always able to defeat proposals to raise and spend money to fund roadways and other improvements on the mainland.

The Town of Pelham in 1868 Before the Creation of Pelham Bay Park.
Source: Beers, F.W., Atlas of New York and Vicinity from
Actual Surveys By and Under the Direction of F.W.
Beers, Assisted By A.B. Prindle & Others, pg. 35 (NY, NY:
Beers, Ellis & Soule, 1868) (Detail from Page 35 Map
Entitled "Town of Pelham, Westchester Co., N.Y. (With) City Island").
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

New York City Begins Efforts to Create Pelham Bay Park

During the 1880s, John Mullaly (a Bronx resident and a founder of the New York Parks Association) led an iniative to create a massive new park for the benefit of New York City residents encompassing the relatively pristine area on the mainland near City Island and including certain islands (like Hunters Island and the Twins).  Much of the area remained comparatively uninhabited, but all of it was within the boundaries of the Town of Pelham as set by the New York State legislature.  

The State Legislature appointed a commission to acquire large tracts of land to form a Bronx parks system that included lands that form today's Pelham Bay Park.  As one source has put it, in 1888, the land was purchased "for a total cost of $2,746,868 and changed the collection of estates into a unified park" consisting of more than 1,700 acres.

The handwriting, of course, was on the wall.  All knew that it was only a matter of time before New York City annexed the portion of the Town of Pelham that it had acquired.  Sure enough, in the mid-1890s New York City annexed the entire area (including the mainland portion, Hunters Island, City Island, and other nearby islands).  With the stroke of a pen, the Town of Pelham had been cut down to an area essentially the same as today's Town of Pelham.

1905 Map of Pelham Bay Park.
Source:  Office of the President of the Borough of the Bronx
Topographical Bureau, Topographical
Survey Sheets of the Borough of the Bronx Easterly of the Bronx
(Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library).
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

The Rise of Three Villages within the Town of Pelham

In the late 19th century, New York State passed legislation that made it easier and more beneficial for local population concentrations to create and administer the village form of government.  At the time, Pelham had population concentrations on City Island, at Bartow-on-the-Sound on the mainland near City Island, at Prospect Hill and along the Esplanade and surrounding areas, and in Pelhamville.

The residents near Prospect Hill and along the Esplanade were a little better organized than other residents of the Town.  Beginning in 1881, they had created a "club" known as the "Pelham Manor Protective Club."  (For more about the Pelham Manor Protective Club, see Thu., Jan. 21, 2010:  Another Brief Account of the January 1, 1883 Annual Meeting of the Pelham Manor Protective Club and the links to additional postings set forth therein.)  For an entire decade, virtually all residents of the area paid dues to the Club which then used the monies to fund basic municipal services such as security personnel, lamp lighters, snow plowing, purchase of rudimentary fire-fighting equipment and the like.  In 1891, the Pelham Manor Protective Club and local residents backed an effort to incorporate much of the area within the Town extending from Colonial Avenue to the Long Island Sound down to the park lands owned by New York City (today's New York City boundary line) as the "Village of Pelham Manor."  Not all of the area was included, however.  There remained unincorporated land that was within the area described above (and, thus, was within the Town of Pelham) but that was not included within the Village of Pelham Manor.  (Slowly such unincorporated property was eventually incorporated into the Village.)  The Village provided its residents with police, fire, sanitation, and street department services among other services.

In the early 1890s, a few residents of the area we know today as Pelham Heights began an initiative to develop large tracts of land in the area and sell the lands for the development of large, single family homes.  A man named Benjamin Fairchild, who later became a United States Congressman representing the district, was a principal force behind this initiative.  Despite the fact that there were only sixteen residents, in 1896, the residents succeeded in the incorporation of the area as the "Village of Pelham."  As an interesting aside, when the village was incorporated by a special act of the State Legislature it had so few residents that by law, if it had been required to fill all elected positions as well as all the seats on its Board of Health, the little Village would have had more offices for elected officials than it had voters.  See  Fri., Sep. 28, 2007:  When Incorporated, The Original Village of Pelham Needed More Elected Officials Than it Had Voters.  This original Village of Pelham (which we know today as Pelham Heights or The Heights) was bounded by the New Rochelle line, the New Haven Railroad, the Hutchinson River and the southern edge of Colonial Avenue, all of which roadway lay entirely within the Village.  The tiny village maintained its own paid police department and paid street department.  It received fire protection from Fire District No. 1 of the Town of Pelham.

Residents of Pelhamville were shocked and incensed by the special act of the State Legislature that created the "Village of Pelham."  They believed that Pelhamville was entitled to incorporate under the name "Village of Pelham."  I have written about this situation before.  See Tue., Jul. 01, 2014:  Why Do We Call It the Village of Pelham Instead of Pelhamville? Because We Were Duped!  See also Fri., Apr. 15, 2005: How Pelhamville "Lost" Its Name!  The residents promptly arranged incorporation of the settlement of Pelhamville as the "Village of North Pelham" the same year (effective on August 29, 1896).  The boundaries were the New Haven Railroad, the Hutchinson River and the New Rochelle line.  The village maintained its own paid police department and paid street department and utilized the incineration plant maintained by the Village of Pelham Manor to dispose of its garbage.  Fire protection was provided by Fire District No. 1 of the Town of Pelham (which covered both the Village of Pelham (the Heights) and the Village of North Pelham.  

As an aside, the reason that the Village of Pelham (the Heights) and the Village of North Pelham were served by a Fire District rather than Village Fire Departments is because at the time organized firefighting was begun in the area, neither of the two areas had yet incorporated as villages.  Thus, local residents had to petition the Town of Pelham to create a Fire District to serve them.  In contrast, the Village of Pelham Manor was incorporated in 1891 and, by state law, was able to create a Village Fire Department after its incorporation without petitioning the Town to form a fire district.  

Map of Pelhamville Published in 1868.
Source: Beers, F.W., Atlas of New York and Vicinity from Actual
Surveys By and Under the Direction of F.W. Beers, Assisted By
A.B. Prindle & Others, pg. 36 (NY, NY: Beers, Ellis & Soule, 1868)
(Detail from Page 36 Map Entitled "Town of New Rochelle,
Westchester Co., N.Y. (With) Pelhamville).
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

Consolidation of the Village of Pelham and the Village of North Pelham

Given the tiny size of the Village of Pelham (the Heights) and the fact that it already "shared" fire protection services with the Village of North Pelham in the sense that both were served by Fire District No. 1 of the Town of Pelham, during the early 1970s a movement arose to consolidate the two villages.  The initiative was quite controversial and was bitterly fought, but voters eventually supported the measure.  The Village of Pelham (the Heights) and the Village of North Pelham consolidated into a single village named the "Village of Pelham" effective June 1, 1975.  After 79 years, it could be said, the settlement of Pelhamville had prevailed and was entitled to use the name "Village of Pelham" for the first time, although it had to share the name with its neighbors in the Heights.

Consolidation Rumblings

Since 1975 there have been rumblings of consolidation of the Village of Pelham and the Village of Pelham Manor on several occasions.  Most recently, in 2004, a debate sprang up in the local press over the wisdom of any such consolidation.  The debate reached the "ears" of the New York Times which published an article about the developments in Pelham.  See Rubenstein, Carin, Government; When Are Two Villages Better Than One?, N.Y. Times, Oct. 24, 2004, PART 1 and PART 2.  

From the 1920s to the present, residents of Pelham have debated the pros and cons of consolidating various of the villages. Others have been debating for decades whether to consolidate or annex into greater New York City various of the suburban governmental units including the entire Town of Pelham. Others have proposed consolidating most of Westchester's towns and cities into a single city named "Westchester City."  See Wed., May 05, 2010:  Pelham Opposed Plan by Lawmakers to Consolidate Westchester Towns Into "Westchester City."  Interestingly, it seems that such considerations were being proposed as early as 1824 -- nearly 200 years ago.  See Thu., May 06, 2010:  Consolidation Involving Pelham Has Been Discussed Since at Least 1824.

Services Performed Today by the Town of Pelham as Opposed to the Villages

The Town of Pelham is a creature of statute.  It was created by the New York State Legislature.  By law the Town is required to provide basic services that are not provided at the Village level including certain services that the Villages choose to give up or to refrain from providing. Thus, the Town of Pelham is responsible for a host of services including: the Town criminal and civil court system; the Town Constable program for prisoner transport and court protection; property tax assessment services; tax collection services for Westchester County, the Pelham Union Free School District, both Villages, and the Town; ambulance and emergency medical fly car services; the Town Library; townwide recreation programs; recreational field maintenance; townwide senior programs; supervision of town-wide elections and election primaries; Registrar of Vital Statistics services; marriage licenses; hunting and fishing licenses; and much more.

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