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.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Was it Arson that Destroyed the Prospect Hill School at Jackson and Plymouth Avenues in 1917?

In 1840, John Hunter of Hunter's Island (who also owned a large tract of land on the mainland just to the southeast of Prospect Hill) deeded a small corner of his land as a site for a new public school building.  According to one account, "In 1866, for some reason, the town purchased part of lot 51 from Terrance Malloy and moved the school to that site, which is now the front part of the main center section of 982 Split Rock Road."  See The Junior League of Pelham, Inc., A Glance at the Past: Pelham's Growth From 1775-1975 p. 14 (The Junior League of Pelham, Inc. Sept. 1976) (Pamphlet associated with accompanying map; 32 pp. including Map Bibliography, Manuscript Bibliography and illustrations by Hedy Klein).

As early as 1879, the Board of Education of the Union Free School District No. 1 of the Town of Pelham formulated a plan to replace the tiny one-room schoolhouse in Pelham Manor on Split Rock Road.  Pelham voters authorized a $4,000 bond issue to fund construction of the new school building on October 14, 1879.  Later in the year, the School District petitioned the Westchester County Board of Supervisors to permit it to sell the tiny Prospect Hill Schoolhouse and the land on which it stood along Split Rock Road and to permit the District to use the proceeds of the sale to purchase "other lands for the site of their school-house, and to the erection of necessary buildings therein." 

On December 22, 1879, Odle Close (a member of the Judiciary Committee of the Westchester County Board of Supervisors) presented to the Board of Supervisors on behalf of the Judiciary Committee a report recommending that the School Board's petition be granted and that authority to sell the schoolhouse and land be given.  The petition subsequently was granted and construction of a new school known as the Jackson Avenue School began shortly thereafter.  

The school building had been erected by the time G. W. Bromley and Co. published a map of the area in 1881.  A detail from that map showing the location of the school appears immediately below.

Detail from 1881 Bromley Map with Arrow
Showing Location of the Jackson Avenue School.

Detail from 1899 Map by John F. Fairchild
Showing Location of the Jackson Avenue School
Referenced on the Map as "Prospect Hill School."

The Jackson Avenue School served Pelham schoolchildren for nearly forty years.  Not long after the turn of the 20th century, however, the population of the Town of Pelham began to explode.  In 1900, the population of the Town was 1,571.  In 1905, the population reached 1,841.  By 1910, the population had grown to 2,998 -- nearly doubling over a ten-year period.  Pelham schools, including the little Jackson Avenue School, were bulging at the seams.  

Post Card View of the First Prospect Hill School on
Jackson Avenue at Plymouth Street in 1907.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

Pelham did not even have its own high school at the turn of the 20th century.  It sent its young scholars to other communities such as Mount Vernon and New Rochelle for high school educations.  Finally, Pelham constructed the "Pelham High School, and Siwanoy Grammar School," the structure that we know today as the central portion of Siwanoy Elementary School.

After dedication of the new structure in 1911, Pelham Manor schoolchildren began attending the Pelham High School, and Siwanoy Elementary School."  The School Board closed the little brick Jackson Avenue School, although it used the structure for storage.

In late 1916 and early 1917, the School Board magnanimously allowed a local church to store some material in the building.  The congregation of Huguenot Memorial Presbyterian Church was building a new church building at Four Corners on the location of the Little Red Church the congregation opened in 1876.  The last service in the Little Red Church took place on December 10, 1916. The Little Red Church building was not demolished at that time.  Rather, elements of the church were salvaged from the structure and the building was moved across Pelhamdale Avenue to a site on Boston Post Road near the service station located there today. It was used as an apartment building with a retail store on the ground floor and lower level for many years until the building finally was razed.

With the permission of the School Board, Huguenot Memorial Presbyterian Church stored some of the salvaged elements of the Little Red Church and various furnishings in the Jackson Avenue School building.  That decision, it turned out, was an unfortunate one.  

On the afternoon of Tuesday, July 10, 1917, at about 4:30 p.m. a fire began in the structure.  The Pelham Manor Fire Department responded quickly, but the flames "had gained a good headway" by the time they arrived from their firehouse only a few blocks away.  

The fire roared through the building.  There was little that could be done.  By the time the Fire Department brought the fire under control, all that was left standing of the building were the exterior brick walls. The building, valued at $6,000, was a total loss.

The fire, it turned out, was suspicious.  Authorities concluded that an incendiary likely was used to start or spread the flames.  There is no indication, however, that any culprit ever was caught.  The fire remains one of the two most notorious arson fires ever experienced in the Town of Pelham.  (The other will remain for a later article on the Historic Pelham Blog.)

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There does not seem to be much news coverage regarding the fire that destroyed the Jackson Avenue School.  If the fire was reported in The Pelham Sun (which would seem likely), the issue or issues no longer exist.  The only report of the fire uncovered so far appeared in the July 14, 1917 issue of the New Rochelle Pioneer.  I have transcribed the text of that brief report immediately below, followed by a citation and link to its source.


An incendiary is believed to have been at work in Pelham Manor.  Tuesday afternoon the old Jackson avenue school house, corner of Jackson and Plymouth avenues, was gutted by fire.  The fire started about 4:30 o'clock and the fire department was called out.  The flames had gained a good headway.  The brick walls of the building was the only remains left standing.

The building at the time of the fire was unoccupied.  Some of the old Red church which was torn down, was placed in the building until the new church is built.  The building was valued at about $6,000 and was used as a school building prior to the construction of the high school buidling.  It is owned by the board of education of the first school district of the town of Pelham."

Source:  SCHOOL FIRE A MYSTERY, New Rochelle Pioneer, Jul. 14, 1917, p. 6, col. 7

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