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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Tillie's Rock, A Swimming Hole Paradise for the Boys and Men of Pelham

Tillie’s Rock was Pelham’s aquatic playground for boys and men in the early twentieth century and, likely, for many years before.  It was a beautiful and private place on the Long Island Sound where most of the time the water was sufficiently deep even during low tide to permit diving and swimming in the cool, refreshing waters near Hunter’s Island. It was, in short, Pelham's favorite swimming hole in the old days.

Tillie’s Rock, is a so-called "glacial erratic" (i.e, a boulder carried to the spot and deposited there eons ago by glacial activity).  It is located on the outermost northeastern tip of Hunter’s Island.  Essentially it sits on a stony promontory extending into the waters of the Sound at the north-northeast end of Hunter’s Island. 

Tillie’s Rock Area in 2012.
The Erratic Actually Known as "Tilley's Rock"
is the Boulder on the Far Right.  Photograph
Courtesy of Jorge Santiago.  NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

For decades, the men and boys of Pelham climbed aboard the Pelham Manor Trolley that ran from the Pelham Train Station (at the border of the Villages of North Pelham and Pelham) and rode it along Wolfs Lane, making a left onto Colonial Avenue and a right onto Pelhamdale Avenue, following Pelhamdale to the end of the line at Shore Road near Travers Island, picking up passengers along the way.  Those intending to visit Tilley's Rock then took a three-mile hike along Shore Road to the rickety wooden causeway that connected Hunter’s Island to Shore Road on the mainland.  They followed the old road and pathways across Hunter’s Island to its northeast tip where they plunged into the cool waters at Tillie’s Rock.  Over time, the reference "Tillie's Rock" came to mean more than the glacial boulder that bears the name.  It came to mean the bathing area anchored by the famous rock.

It may seem odd to refer to Tillie’s Rock as an aquatic playground for boys and men.  However, before the advent of Orchard Beach, Tillie’s Rock was so distant and private that bathers often swam and played “au natural” there,  Thus, the area became a favorite haunt for boys and men -- not women.  As one account put it, Tillie’s Rock was “a sanctuary where the male of the species may enjoy a sunbath or a dip in the cooling waters of Long Island Sound without benefit of a bathing suit or danger of surprise by any picnicing [sic] parties.”

With the construction of Orchard Beach and the completion of filling Pelham Bay to join Hunter's Island to the mainland during the 1930s, the area became far more easily accessible.  The loss of privacy seems to have taken its toll on what once was considered Pelham's idyllic swimming hole.  Moreover, as at least two news accounts suggest, by the mid-1930s, there was a police crackdown on nude bathing near Tillie's Rock.  

There was a time when virtually every young boy and man in Pelham knew Tillie's Rock and how to get there.  Today, however, most Pelhamites have never heard of Tillie's Rock.  

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog collects and transcribes a series of newspaper articles and other published material that mentions Tillie's Rock.  Each is followed by a citation to its source and, where available, a link.

"TILLY'S ROCK.  A large boulder on the easternmost ledge off Hunter Island was known by this name for many years by the hardy campers.  the origin of the name is obscure, and it might be named after someone named Matilda.  A second theory is that it served as a navigational marker for old-time sailors to take tiller and change course.  They called it Tiller Rock."

Source:  McNamara, John, History in Asphalt:  The Origin of Bronx Street and Place Names, p. 405 (The Bronx, NY:  Bronx County Historical Society, 1996) (paperback version reprinted by The Bronx County Historical Society, Copyright 1978, 1984, 1991, 1996).

Police Put An Early End To Nudism at Favorite ‘Tillie’s Rock’ Resort

According to reports, summer must have arrived one month too early.  Officially June 21 is set for the beginning of the summer season, but with thunder storms, white flannels and straw hats appearing early this year, all indications point toward a hasty summer.  However all suspicions were confirmed on Monday, May 21, when eleven men were arrested for bathing in the nude at Hunter’s Island.  When its warm enough to attract the nudists to ‘Tillie’s Rock,’ summer has certainly arrived.

The New York City Park Department has issued a warning that bathing will not be permitted in the Pelham Bay Park territory this summer because of water pollution, and that edict is also directed against the favorite resort of men and boys at the outermost tip of Hunter’s Island, which has long been known to those worthies who do not object to a three mile hike for privacy, as ‘Tillie’s Rock.’  The long walk from the end of the ‘Toonerville Trolley’ line at Pelhamdale Avenue and the Shore Road has made this almost a sanctuary where the male of the species may enjoy a sunbath or a dip in the cooling waters of Long Island Sound without benefit of a bathing suit or danger of surprise by any picnicing [sic] parties.

Old timers will tell you that even when the Beecroft boys, Edgar, Chester, and Jim used to make Hunter Island their favorite haunt, many years ago, ‘Tillie’s Rock,’ was a popular resort for what is now known as nudism of the strictly male variety. 

However, times have changed and alterations to the bridle paths in Pelham Bay Park have permitted the use of old trails on Hunter Island by equestrians.  Then, too, the New Rochelle – Port Washington ferry follows a channel not so far distant from ‘Tillie Rock.’  It was the ferry boat that proved the undoing of Monday’s bathers and sun tanners.  The sudden summer weather had attracted many to ‘Tillie’s Rock’ and likewise proved a boon for many who sought relief from the sudden heat spell.  It is reported that a group of each variety of relief seekers came in the neighborhood of ‘Tillie’s Rock’ at precisely the same time and –--

When the ferry boat reached port in New Rochelle a hurry telephone call was sent to the police precinct in Pelham Bay Park and it was not long before the sun-tanned group of eleven men were herded into the Night Court in the Bronx.  Inasmuch as they were the first such offenders of the season, Magistrate William A. Farrell suspended sentence with a warning.

Moral – Keep away from ‘Tillie’s rock.’”

Source:  Police Put An Early End To Nudism at Favorite‘Tillie’s Rock’ Resort, The Pelham Sun, May 25, 1934, p. 13, cols. 1-2.

’Tillie’s Rock’ Boyhood’s Favorite Swimming Hole, Neglected for Years, Will Be Part of New Orchard Beach
Hunter Island Beach was Once Man’s Paradise; Now To Be Included in Mile Long Beach Constructed By Park Department and W.P.A. Will Open Wednesday.

With the development of the new Orchard Beach, extending across swamp land between Rodman’s Neck at City Island to Hunter Island, just south-east of Pelham Manor, an old favorite bathing beach of the boys of Pelham Manor a few years ago is passing into memory.  Orchard Beach, a mile long stretch of sand, said to be a rival to the famous Jones Beach on Long Island will be open to the public on Wednesday.  Among the thousands who will enjoy its modern facilities will be many who will remember it as ‘Tillie’s Rock,’ the man’s paradise where several years ago many of those in Pelham who are now grown to manhood learned to swim.

‘Tillie’s Rock’ – just how it got its name, no-one seemed to know, but the stoney promontory on the northeasterly end of Hunter’s Island always had sufficient water for diving, and alongside it was a small sandy beach where the less daring could paddle and splash to their heart’s content, while they learned to master the ‘dog paddle’ or the ‘dead man’s float,’ which have always been the first rudiments of aquatics for the novice.

‘Tillie’s Rock’ was a man’s paradise, let it be known, for it was tacitly understood that there, the male of the species could take on its water lure ‘au natural’ without fear of invasion by members of the fair sex.  The beach was a good three mile walk from Pelham Manor.  The bridge to Hunter Island was always in danger of falling down, and only the male mind could understand that a good swim was actually worth the long hike, so at all hours of a hot summer day, on the trail through the woods near the Pelham Bay Golf Course could be seen men and boys, from Pelham on their way to or returning from ‘Tillie’s Rock.’

The favorite bathing beach lost some of its charm when the Westchester County Park Commission opened up the Glen Island beach a few years ago, but there were still many loyalists who held out for ‘Tillie’s Rock,’ a long hike but worth it.

The Orchard Beach development put an end to it all, however.  Early this year the rickety bridge between the mainland and Hunter Island lost its center span, and it was no rebuilt.  A huge dredge capable of pumping 10,000 cubic yards of fill a day was installed in Turtle Cove, the inlet between Hunter’s Island and the mainland, and set to work to make the beach.  During the winter and spring, 1,125,000 cubic yards of fill have been pumped out of Turtle Cove to make the beach, which now covers an area of 25 acres, and which will be increased to 40 acres as the development progresses.

The beach itself is more than 100 feet wide at high tide, is semi-circular and is backed up by a five-foot sea wall.  On the top of this wall is a concrete promenade, paved with asphalt blocks.  The promenade I forty-nine feet wide and extends to the length of the beach.

The improvement which is being done as a PWA project under the supervision of the Park Department of the Borough of the Bronx has provided work for 1,500 men. 

The bathhouse which lies midway between Hunter’s Island and Rodman’s Neck will have one of the six sections ready on Wednesday, extension now being constructed will accommodate 9,000. 

The Hutchinson River Parkway will extend to the new beach and will be ready for use on Sept. 1, according to present plans.

So ‘Tillie’s Rock’ comes into its own at last.  It’s going to be one of the model beaches along the Atlantic Coast.  But – the old style of swimming has gone.  Full bathing suits, trunks and tops must be worn.”

Source:  “Tillie’s Rock” Boyhood’s Favorite SwimmingHole, Neglected for Years, Will Be Part of New Orchard Beach, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 10, 1936, p. 6, cols. 3-4. 

'Street They Take in at Night,' 'Toonerville Trolley,' 'Red Church Corner,' 'Grand Jury Bench,' and 'Summer White House' Are Institutions of Long Standing.

Residential communities such as the Pelhams . . . are seldom without their 'institutions,' the novel features which contribute greatly to the homeliness of the villages.  Perhaps they mark us as 'small towners' but they are the items that make the Pelhams distinctive suburban communities, countryside of gentlefolk, one of our enterprising sloganeers once deftly termed the three villages, and it is the residential features to which the villages cling that certainly establish this fact.

'Where else in this part of the world will you find them taking the streets in at night?' one of our critics was heard to ask not so long ago.  He was a disgruntled motorist seeking a short route from Mount Vernon to New Rochelle after midnight.  Of course, he chose the Boulevard, only to find that the thoroughfare had been barricaded at Wolf's Lane to prevent the passage of noisy trucks through the residential district while the citizens of the villages were sleeping.

This unique procedure was instituted in 1924 when the Pelham Heights village trustees determined that the Boulevard had not yet been fully dedicated to the village, and could therefore be closed at will.  The passage of trucks through this avenue was extremely bothersome late at night.  The long hill from Pelhamdale to Corona avenues was too steep for heavy lumbering vehicles to negotiate in high speed and the clattering of transmissions and discordant rumble of racing engines made sleep almost impossible.

Proponents of the street closing were met with objections on the ground that the highway had been a public thoroughfare for a period of years.

'It had never before been closed,' said the objectors, 'and therefore could not be barricaded at night.'

Investigation, however, showed that the street had been closed at least once every year, to permit coasting on winter days, so the village fathers took advantage of this and consequently Pelham Heights sleeps peacefully at night.

'The Toonerville Trolley' is another much maligned 'institution' of the Pelhams, yet Pelham Manor is loath to relinquish it.  Perhaps a motor bus would give better service to the commuters who ridicule its contention of meeting all trains, but just listen to their howl if you talk about abandoning the line.  Long before Fontaine Fox visited Pelham in 1909 and gained the inspiration for 'Toonerville Trolley' by riding in the Pelham Manor car, the residents of the village had learned to depend on the car.  They'll swear it's a nuisance (you can find several examples of the Terrible Tempered Mr. Bang) but it's a favorite institution with residents of the Manor. 

'The Red Church Corner' is almost forgotten except by the old timers, who remember when the old Huguenot Memorial church, painted a brilliant red, was situated at the intersection of the Boston road and Pelhamdale avenue.  The late Edward Penfield, noted artist, erected a marker at the site, but the newcomers are ignorant of the fact that 'The Red Church Corner' was once as well known in Westchester as Columbus Circle is in New York City.

When the Pelham Manor village officials first contemplated plans for a park and bathing beach on Long Island Sound adjacent to Travers Island, Remington Schuyler, the artist, well versed in Pelham lore, proposed that it be called Beecroft Beach.  The Beecroft boys, of whom Edgar C. Beecroft, village attorney of Pelham Manor is the last in the village, were once the ringleaders of youth in the Pelhams and made their headquarters along the sound shore.  The site of the proposed beach was the scene of many of the Beecroft boys' escapades in the early days of the village, and there are still many of the old timers who have accepted 'Beecroft Beach.'  The park will not be ready for use by the villagers for several years, but the term will last among those who remember the old days.

About a mile away from Beecroft Beach is 'Tillie's Rock,' on Hunter's Island, which has for many years been the favorite bathing beach of the youth of the Pelhams.  What price a three mile hike, if one can enjoy a swim in the cooling waters of the Sound without the necessity of having to carry a bathing suit all that distance.  'Tillie's Rock' is reserved for men only, and it is as sacred a masculine haven as Huckleberry Island, the aristocratic beach of the Huckleberry Indians, on whose premises no woman has ever set foot.

North Pelham has its 'Grand Jury Bench,' where the old timers gather to discuss questions of international, national and local importance.  Former Mayor James Reilly, the old war horse of village politics, is the foreman of the jury which meets regularly on a low bench at Sixth Street and Fifth avenue.  Many of the major improvements of the village have been planned from this bench and at all hours of the day a loiterer is certain to pick up some interesting information from the 'jurymen.'

Although we must travel several miles to visit the next 'Pelham Institution,' its distance does not remove it from local patriotism in the least.  It is the 'Summer White House' at Alburg, Vt., where Supervisor David Lyon holds sway during the summer months.  The pilgrimages have already begun and rumor has it that the real Pelham political pot is brewing on the shore of Lake Champlain where the Supervisor is spending his vacation.

Do you know these 'institutions'?  If you don't you had better ask some of the old Timers and get acquainted.  You're missing something. 

Can you find anything more than those mentioned?"

Source:  PELHAM"INSTITUTIONS" ARE DEAR TO THE HEARTS OF THE OLD TIMERS, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 24, 1931, p. 5, cols. 1-2.


Pelham Lions, having abandoned plans for an outing of Lions, their wives and children at the New Rochelle Shore Club, are now planning a day of sport and festivity at ‘Tillie’s Rock’ near Hunter’s Island on the Sound.  Many of the Lions have showed [sic] preference for ‘Tillie’s Rock,’ for many of them the scene of boyhood fun, and which still retains the atmosphere of the old swimming hole of other days.”

Source:  LIONS LIVE IN PASTThe Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jul. 12, 1932, p. 16, col. 7. 

Edward Jewett, Jr. and Albert Anderson Save Colored Men
Scuffling in Rowboat When Accident Occurs Off of Hunter's Point
One Man Unconscious, But Is Revived On Shore After Being Worked Over

Falling overboard from a rowboat in Long Island Sound near Hunter's Island yesterday afternoon, 'Bronco' Smith, of 214 South Eighth avenue, and Fred Raymond, of 206 South Eighth avenue, both colored, were saved from drowning by Edward W. Jewett, Jr., of 9 West Third street, and Albert Anderson, also of this city.

Both Smith and Raymond were unable to swim and undoubtedly would have drowned had not the white men, who were swimming nearby, gone to their rescue and dragged them to shore.  As it was, Raymond was unconscious when pulled out of the water and was only resuscitated after he had been worked over for a quarter of an hour.  

The colored men hired a boat to take a row on the sound.  When they were a short distance from Tilly's rock, where a dozen or more white men were in bathing, they began to cut up some antics.  The boat rocked dangerously and the bathers called out that there would be an accident unless the rowers quieted down.  

The others, however, were unmindful of the caution.  Raymond tried to snatch the oars out of Smith's hands, it is said, and in the tussel that ensued the oar lock was lost, there was a jolt as one of the men fell and in a moment, both were in the water.  The bathers saw their plight.  Jewett at once started to their rescue, swimming out to the place where the men were floundering about near the upturned boat.

While he was trying to help one man to shore the other grabbed him and all went under.  The water was about 10 feet deep there, it then being low tide.  Anderson then swam out and he grabbed hold of one of the colored men, who were having a hard time, being weighted down with their water-soaked clothes.  Jewett after much trouble managed the other and the rescuers made the shore, each dragging a half-drowned man with him.

It wasn't long before both victims were laughing over their narrow escape.  Not caring to come home in their bedraggled condition, they decided to wait until nightfall came on.  They waited until nine o'clock when some friends brought them clean, dry clothing and they returned, little the worse for their experience."

Source:  SWIMMERS RESCUED TWO MEN YESTERDAY, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jul. 10, 1914, No. 7497, p. 1, col. 3.

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