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, October 05, 2015

A Brief History of the Founding of Pelham Heights, Once the Village of Pelham

On December 20, 1910, Pelham's newly-established newspaper, The Pelham Sun, published a significant article written by then former Congressman Benjamin L. Fairchild (who later served several additional terms in Congress).  Fairchild was one of two principal founders of the tiny Village of Pelham, known today as Pelham Heights.  The article detailed the origins of Pelham Heights.  The article appeared with several others including one written by William B. Randall on behalf of the other initial developer of Pelham Heights, Benjamin F. Corlies, who was ill at the time and living abroad.  

Pelham Heights Home of Hon. Benjamin L. Fairchild in
1895.  Source: Pelham Heights, The Mount Vernon Argus
[Mount Vernon, NY], May 30, 1895, Supplement,
p. 7, cols. 3-4.  NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.

The Fairchild article is significant for a host of reasons.  For example, it details the reasons the tiny village owned its own water system, something that became somewhat of a burden to Pelham Heights in recent years until the recent sale of the water system in the Heights to United Water Westchester.  It also details the precise moment that Benjamin L. Fairchild concluded that a village could be built on the tracts that make up today's Pelham Heights and what went through his mind at that moment.  As he put it, he realized that the land was "a village site without a village" due to its beauty, its location within walking distance of the Pelham train station, the number of trains that stopped daily, and the brevity of the commute to and from Manhattan.  

Another aspect of the article that is fascinating concerns how circumspect and careful Benjamin L. Fairchild is when he describes how he wanted to purchase the three tracts that made up much of The Heights but was only able to buy two of the tracts.  Fairchild does not mention in the article that before he was able to complete negotiations for the third tract, he traveled to Alaska where, in 1889, he survived the wreck of the Steamship Ancon and had to be rescued, taking an extended time to return home to Pelham.  Upon his return, he discovered that Pelham Manor resident and rival developer Benjamin F. Corlies had stepped into the picture and acquired the tract despite Fairchild's then-ongoing efforts to purchase it.  See Bell, Blake A., Pelham and The 1889 Wreck of the Steamship Ancon, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIV, Issue 7, February 18, 2005, p. 10, col. 1.  Indeed, during Fairchild's absence from Pelham and while he was shipwrecked, Benjamin F. Corlies purchased what was known as the Johnson tract. When Fairchild finally returned from his ordeal, as he later admitted, he “naturally was upset at the turn of events” but worked out his differences with Corlies so that “[e]ach of the gentlemen retained title to his own tract, but all the property was developed according to one plan.”  The article says nothing of the hard feelings between the pair until they were able to work out their differences.  See A GLANCE AT THE PAST - PELHAM’S GROWTH FROM 1775 – 1975, pp. 18-19 (Pelham, NY:  Privately Printed, 1976).

I have written about the fascinating history of Pelham Heights on many occasions.  For a few examples, see:

Mon., Apr. 14, 2014:  Early History of Pelham Heights Published in 1895.

Tue., Jan. 21, 2014:  Early History of Pelham Heights: "Then Was Formed The Idea That Gave Pelham Heights Its Birth"

Thu., Jul. 16, 2009:  Village of Pelham Trustees Grant Franchise Necessary for the Pelham Manor Trolley that Inspired the Toonerville Trolley.  

Fri., Dec. 07, 2007:  Another Biography of Congressman Benjamin Fairchild of Pelham, a Founder of Pelham Heights.  

Thu., Dec. 06, 2007:  Biography of John F. Fairchild, Engineer of the Pelham Heights Company During the 1890s.  

Fri., Sep. 28, 2007:  When Incorporated, The Original Village of Pelham Needed More Elected Officials Than it Had Voters.  

Tue., Aug. 15, 2006:  Another Biography of Benjamin L. Fairchild of Pelham Heights.

Fri., Apr. 22, 2005:  Benjamin L. Fairchild of Pelham Heights -- A Notable Pelham Personage.  

Bell, Blake A., Early History of Pelham Heights, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIII, No. 32, Aug. 13, 2004, p. 9, col. 1.

Bell, Blake A., Pelham and The 1889 Wreck of the Steamship Ancon, The Pelham Weekly, Vol. XIV, Issue 7, February 18, 2005, p. 10, col. 1.

Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog provides additional information about the early history of Pelham Heights.  It transcribes the articles that appeared in the December 20, 1910 issue of The Pelham Sun describing the earliest efforts to develop the lands that became The Heights.  For those interested in the history of The Heights, the articles are worth reading in their entirety.

Detail from 1910 Bromley Map Showing Pelham Heights.
Map Was Created About the Same Time as the Articles
About Pelham Heights that Appear Immediately Below.
in Bromley, George W. & Bromley, Walter S., Atlas
of Westchester County, New York, Volume 1, From Actual
Surveys and Official Plans by George W. and Walter S.
Bromley and Co., 147 N. Fifth St., Philadephia, 1910, p. 22
(Philadelphia, Pa:  G.W. Bromley & Co. 1910).
NOTE:  Click Image to Enlarge.


The village of Pelham, commonly called Pelham Heights, twenty-five years ago was on the map only as a piece of woodland.  As to how it came into being former Congressman Benjamin L. Fairchild, who with Mr. Corlies is responsible for its development, tells The Pelham Sun an interesting narrative.  Being asked to give the history of the village, he replied:

'My purchase of property in Pelham and developing Pelham Heights grew out of my having previously purchased and developed some property in Mount Vernon adjoining the Pelham line.  That property became known as Dunham Park.  Fifth street, Mount Vernon, easterly from Columbus avenue, went through Dunham Park, and the easterly end of Fifth street near the Pelham line terminated abruptly at a cliff, so that it was impossible to continue that street through to Wolf's Lane.  I had purchased Dunham Park property through Mr. McClellan.  

'One day after Fifth street had been opened to this cliff close to the Pelham line, I was standing at Fifth street, Dunham Park, with Mr. McClellan and he happened to say to me:  'If that bluff were not in the way so that we could continue Fifth street through to Pelham, the property then would be nearer to the Pelham station than to the Mount Vernon station.'  Not knowing anything about Pelham, I said 'Where is the Pelham station?' and he pointing in the direction, said 'Over there.'  Seeing nothing but woods in the direction in which he pointed, I said 'Not many trains stop at Pelham station, I suppose?'  He said 'Yes.  They have practically the same train service at Pelham as at Mount Vernon.'  I replied 'That, evidently, is the second station from Grand Central Terminal, and as they seem to have the same train service as Mount Vernon, why is it that there is no village there?'

Village Site Without a Village.

'Shortly after I tramped over to Pelham and looked around the place.  I then investigated to find out why it was that sandwiched in between Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, at the second station fro the Grand Central, and only thirty minutes from Forty-second street, there was a village site without a village.  I found that in what is now Pelham Heights there were three tracts of land, one known as the Johnson property, which was subsequently purchased by Mr. Corlies.  The other two tracts were known as the McClellan tract and the Grenzenbach tract.  I found as an explanation as to why there had been no developent, that although the McClellan tract and the Grenzerbach tract were near the Pelham station, if there were streets through the Johnson tract, that is, the Johnson tract was next to the Pelham station, then the only way to reach the Pelham station from the Grenzerbach tract would be to go southerly to the Old Boston Post Road, now Colonial avenue, then around, by way of Wolf's Lane, which made the Grenzerbach tract a long distance away.  So I then conceived the plan of developing what is known now as Pelham Heights into a high grade property.  I was determined, that if I could secure the ownership of all three of the tracts which made up the entire village site, I would then develop it into a high class section and make my home there.  I was also determined that if I succeeded in purchasing only one or two pieces, anything short of the entire village site, I would turn the property over to a real estate agent, continue to live in New York and open it up as cheaper property, the same as I had done with my Mount Vernon property.  But it seemed to me that if the ownership of the entire village could be in one person or corporation, so that the entire village could be restricted, there would be a fine opportunity of making a restricted village.

'I purchased the Grenzerbach and McClellan tracts, and was in touch with the Johnson tract, looking to the time when they would be able to give title, but my plans were apparently interfered with by the fact that I went to California and Alaska in the summer of 1889.

'Upon my return I immediately called upon the attorney for the Johnson tract and was informed that another man had purchased it.  That for the moment seemed to interfere with my plans of making a high class development here, but I then learned that Benjamin F. Corlies, of Pelham Manor, had purchased the tract.  One day he called on me personally.

'In that interview I learned that he was as much concerned over what kind of a development I had contemplated as I was over what kind of development he was going to make.  I learned from him that he resided in Pelham Manor and had the same thoughts regarding developing Pelham Heights as I had had.  We thereupon agreed with one another that while each would retain the tite to his own property, we would develop them under one general plan of street improvements and high order of improvements and high order of restrictive property.  That was the commencement of developing Pelham Heights into what it now is.

'At that time there were no sewers in any portion of the Town of Pelham.  There were no gas mains, no water mains and no macadamized roads.  Pelham Manor still had only dirt roads.  Pelham Manor, as well as North Pelham, was dependent upon cisterns for water.  They were also still dependent upon lamps, or, if they had gas, had gas tanks in the cellar for light.  They had no sewage system.

'The first sewers constructed in any part of the Town of Pelham were constructed in Pelham Heights.  The first macadamized roads constructed in any part of the Town of Pelham were constructed in Pelham Heights.  Also the first gas mains and water mains.

'After sewers, gas, mains, water mains and macadamized roads had been constructed in Pelham Heights, there was an agitation in Pelham Manor to incorporate the village for the purpose of bonding themselves to secure a sewage system and macadamized roads , and in that case there was some talk of including Pelham Heights.  I objected to the inclusion of the Pelham Heights property in the Village of Pelham Manor corporation, for the reason that we already had macadamized roads and a sewage system, and we did not want to be taxed to give Pelham Manor macadamized roads and a sewage system.

'Fortunately for Pelham Heights' plans, there was not sufficient population in Pelham Manor nor in Pelham Heights together to enable them, under the law, to extend their boundaries beyond the Boston Post Road or Columbus avenue.  That saved us from going into the Village of Pelham Manor and being subjected to the bond issues they were going to have to give them sewers and macadamized roads which we already had.

'North Pelham was not yet incorporated.

'In order to protect our situation I secured an amendment I think, in 1895, of the General Village Law, because the general village law did not permit so small a population as then existed in Pelham Heights to incorporate.  My admendment did permit a territory through which streets and avenues and municipal improvements had already been completed and paid for, to incorporate as a village, no matter how small the population.

'After that bill passed the Legislature, the time when Governor Morton was Governor of the State, I received word that Governor Morton would not sign the bill under the advice of his legal adviser.  His legal adviser happened to be Mr. Lincoln, who was a member of the Statutory Revision Commission, ,which Commission was then revising the laws of the State, including village laws.  

'I learned that Mr. Lincoln had strong opinions and objected to large indebtedness in small villages, and advocated provisions to eliminate the amount of indebtedness a small village could create, and also eliminate their ability to compel future generations to pay for it.

'I went to Albany and had an interview with Mr. Lincoln.  I asked him what was the objection he had to the bill, and he replied, 'Why do you want to incorporate woods?'  I said 'That is a natural question.'  I then explained to him that lusually municipalities are incorporated in order to bond themselves to secure municipal improvements.  We had a complete sewer system and macadamized roads.  We wished to incorporate ourselves in order to save ourselves from a bonded indebtedness.  That appealed to him, he withdrew his objection and Governor Morton signed the bill.

Incorporate Village -- Nine Votes Cast.

'We then immediately incorporated, and the village became famous as the smallest village in the country.  At the first election every voter in the village voted and there was a total of nine votes cast.  Mr. Cushman Caldwell was the first President elected.  At that time villages of the fourth class had three trustees instead of as now two.

'When the improvements in Pelham started, there was only one house, an old frame house, which subsequenty was destroyed by fire, in what is now known as Pelham Heights, bounded by the New Haven Railroad track, Wolf's Lane and Pelhamdale avenue.

'We laid gas and water mains through the streets.  They were constructed before there was gas supplied or water supplied . . . and before we had any . . . or knew where to go to get it.  This plan was necessary because we did not want the streets to be torn up again to lawy water and gas mains, and partly because I made up my mind to get water and gas somewhere.

'For water I tried in vain to negotiate with the Interurban Water Company on one hand and the New Rochelle Water Company on the other hand.  The New Rochelle Water Company was ready to make an arrangement, but upon terms to which I was unwilling to accede.  Fortunately the New York and Westchester Water Company, in the year 1890, located in the Town of Pelham and constructed its wells for water supply in the Town of Pelham.  Following that the New Rochelle Water Company constructed its first main in the Town of Pelham, through North Pelham and through Wolf's Lane in Pelham Heights.

'With the ownership of the water mains and the streets and avenues in Pelham Heights, I found myself with two water companies, each one ready and willing to connect with my mains, the water in either main running parallel with one another at the point of connection with my mains.  I then refused to sell my water mains to either company.  I took the position of being more interested in getting low water rates for the people who lived in Pelham Heights than I was in getting money for the mains, that I would permit either company to have the free use of my mains provided that they give satisfactorily low rates to the consumers.  My mains were then connected up both with the New Rochelle and the Westcehster Water Companies, and by the turning of a key,, in one or the other, I could secure water from the Westchester Water Company a portion of the time, and a portion of the time from the New Rochelle Water Company, according to which company would give the more satisfactory terms, but I refused to sell my mains to either.  

'By this means I secured from the New York and Westchester Water Company a flat rate of $13.50 per year which continued for a good many years, and until the New Rochelle Water Company purchased the New York and Westchester Water Company.

'As the result of my securing from the New York and Westchester Water Company the $13.50 rate, the New York and Westchester Water Company felt compelled, when they went into Pelham Manor, to give Pelham Manor the same rate which they were giving to Pelham Heights, although the consideration for the low rate in Pelham Heights was the free use of my water mains.

Grew Like a Club.

'Pelham Heights grew more like a club than a suburban development widely advertised.  It was never put into the hands of a real estate agent, and the enitire plan of developing it was to keep it away from being a 'Boom Place.'  It grew from people hearing of it and one person introducing another.  

'As a result of that kind of growth, it acquired a reputation as an exclusive residential section.  From then on it grew rapidly.  During the period when the growth was slow, I had occasion to refuse to make sales, because I was anxious to keep the property along proper lines of a highly restrictive development.  I had a number of applications made to me where I could have sold a number of lots and put up a large number of houses, but I knew from other places, where houses had been built in a large number, that there would be a sameness about the houses which would give the place a stamp I didn't like.  I refused to sell in response to many such applications.  The result has been individuality of homes.  

'There were no gas mains in the streets in any part of the Town of Pelham except the mains I had laid in the Heights.  I applied to the gas company then owned by the Mount Vernon Gas Company, and the American Gas Company.  I opened negotiations with them to see upon what terms they would extend their mains which were in Mount Vernon, east of the water tower, easterly to Pelham and supply the people of Pelham with gas, and the best they would offer was that if I would furnish the money in the shape of a loan to them for the cost of the main through Mount Vernon to Pelham and would permit them to charge us one and one-half to two times as much for the gas to private consumers as they charged in Mount Vernon, and one-half as much for street lights as they charged in Mount Vernon, they would cover over here.

'I got hold of another man interested in gas, and made a tentative arrangement with him whereby another gas company was incorporated ready to build its plant on Eastchester Creek, and come into Pelham and furnish gas to North Pelham, Pelham Manor and Pelham Heights.

'When the Mount Vernon Gas Company learned of that they took a different tack, and the representative of the American Gas Company learned of that they took a different tack, and the representative of the American Gas Company came to me in my office in New York and told me that they were ready to extend their mains to Pelham Heights and give us the same terms for private consumers and street lamps as they gave in Mount Vernon.  I said I would do it if they would agree to give the same terms to North Pelham and Pelham Manor.  They said no.  I said, 'I will not deal with you unless you also agree to give the same terms to North Pelham and Pelham Manor as Pelham Heights.'  He finally agreed to that and a contract was gotten up accordingly.  But they delayed signing the contract.  The representative of the gas company came to me on a number of occasions, each time giving a different excuse as to why they had not executed the contract, one of the excuses being that having made this arrangement, they were arranging in Wall Street for a bond issue to carry it out, and did not want to sign the contract until they had concluded that money arrangement.  

I then discovered that during that delay what they were really doing was going behind my back to the Pelham Manor Board of Trustees and negotiating a contract with Pelham Manor on the same terms which they had offered to me alone.  It left North Pelham and Pelham Heights out of it.  They did this without telling the Pelham Manor Board of Trustees anything about the negotiations with me, or anything about the stand I took that I was going to look out for the interests of Pelham and North Pelham as well as Pelham Heights.  I found it out just in time, and was thereby enabled to acquaint the Board of Trustees of Pelham Manor with the situation, and the result was that the Board of Trustees did not conclude the co0ntract with them, and would not conclude it until they agreed to give the same terms to the rest of us.  Pelham then got gas.

'When you ask me if much land is still unsold in the Heights, I reply that Mr. Corlies has only a few lots left along Wolf's Lane.  I have about half of my property left, and the fact is that the less and I own, the more taxes do I pay.

'To my mind Pelham Heights is a pretty nice spot to live in and I have no regrets that I happened to fasten my eyes upon what once was a village site without a village, but which now is one of the most enchanting residential sections within easy distance of New York City.'
Mr. Corlies' Pelham Advances

Mr. Benjamin F. Corlies, founder of the firm of Corlies, Macy Co., retired from that firm about forty years ago, and seeking occupation in which he could enjoy out of door life, and having the creative instinct strong within him, in 1889 purchased at Pelham what was then known as the Johnson tract, which comprised that part of Pelham along the line of the N.Y., N.H. & H. Railroad from Wolf's Lane to Cliff avenue, and extending toward the east a little beyond Second street.

This land was in part difficult to sub-divide with hill and dale and much rough land with water courses to provide for, but through the genius of a competent engineer, Mr. John F. Fairchild, the improvements were completed with credit to the engineer and the owner, who constantly supervised the work.  

Mr. Corlies desired that his section should develop into a high class residential community, with the exception  of Wolf's Lane, which he expected would in turn be devoted to business.  

Mr. B. L. Fairchild, head of the Pelham Heights Company, who owned the splendid full section of Pelham, desired the same high class improvements.  Mr. Corlies sold to the N.Y., N.H. & H.R. Railroad a part of their present right of way for a nominal sum, and with wise forethought stipulated that all trains stopping at Mount Vernon should also stop at Pelham and that the railroad should also construct the present artistic stone arch at the Highbrook avenue crossing.  

The Wolf's Lane property, on account of its environment and changed conditions, is destined for business use.  

The introduction of good stores into this street would be of much service to the community.  Suburbanites often forget that it costs time and money to go to the city for small purchases, which could as well be purchased near their own homes.

A recent article in the Westchester County Chamber of Commerce Quarterly comments upon this phase of suburban life as follows:

'Probably there is no other county in the State which keeps so small a proportion of its circulating wealth within its borders as does Westchester.  The metropolis gets a large part of our retail trade.  Of course, it is only natural that we should desire to spend our money where it will secure the maximum of quality or quantity, but it is too often taken for granted that shopping must be done in New York City.  Get into the habit of giving your local merchants the first chance.  You may be surprised to find what a large part of your needs can be supplied in the home towns.

'The prosperity of the merchants has a direct influence on the appearance and attractiveness of any community, and it is the duty of every good citizen to give them his support.'

The condition of Mr. Corlies' health has made it necessary for him to live abroad much of the tie for the past tweve years, and the writer has during that period represented his interests. 


Our Neighbors

Some people are fortunate in their selection of their grandfathers, -- hence their success.  Every municipality is affected by its neighbors, and particularly is this so of Pelham Town on account of its size; therefore, Pelham Town is to be congratulated on its neighbors.  Whether they exist on account of its own selection or a kindly decree of Providence, it makes no difference.  The fact remains that just outside of Pelham's boundaries the property and residential developments are such as to inure to the town's advantage.  There is no undesirable shack or slum development along any of Pelham's boundaries.  

On the southeast in New Rochelle the fine houses along the Weyman avenue section and the improvements in the Edgar and Keogh properties bear the marks of Pelham's own fine development.  

Further north in New Rochelle the Sycamore Park development and still further north the Pelhamwood and Huguenot Park developments snhow no line o0f demarcation with the fine Pelham sections adjoining.

On the south of the town are Long Island Sound and Pelham Bay Park, both of them sources of unfailing attractions.

On the west in New York City and the southeasterly section of Mount Vernon there is a small business section matching a similar section in Pelham.  

North of this, to the New Haven Railroad, Dunham Park, Mount Vernon Heights and Vernon Park have established excellent neighborhood characteristics.

North of the New Haven Railroad extending almost to Lincoln avenue the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway owns twenty-one acres of beautiful woodland which will be incorporated in the proposed Hutchinson Parkway and its beauties preserved for posterity.

From Lincoln avenue northerly to the town's limits there remained an undeveloped section prior to the advent of the new railroad.  Upon the character of its development depended to a large extent the values in the neighboring section of Pelham as it surrounds the station on the main line of the new railroad on which the northerly section of the town is dependent and thus forms the front entrance to that section.  

Thanks to the foresight and energy of one of our townsmen, this section, subdivided as Lincoln Manor and Chester Heights, is destined to be one of the best developed and most valuable of any of our neighbors.  Laid out with a view to preserving the natural picturesqueness of the ancient woods and rugged scenery, it has attracted a very desirable class of residences.  Realizing that only the best will attract the best, Major Fairchild is installing the best character of improvements in the streets, and the resulting house improvements prove the wisdom of his plans.  He has thus protected Pelham on the northwesterly boundary, and with the assured rapid increase of population along the new road as so0on as the terminal facilities now in progress are completed it will be only a few years before this section will be fully built up and the developers will reap a rich reward in recompense for their work.

Pelham Officials
Tax Collector,

President Huber on Pelham

The early history and development of the Village of Pelham is a subject that was assigned to Mr. Benjamin L. Fairchild who, as the pioneer in establishing our beautiful village, will do the subject justice.

In the past ten years, this village, which is one of the most attractive home sites, has increased in its number of residences three fold.  Being a parkway, the care of the grass plots in front of each property from the lot line to the curb, is cared for by the Street Department, giving each street a uniform beautiful appearance.  A great deal of attention has been given to the care of the roadways which are macadamized and thoroughly repaired every spring and oiled during the summer thus avoiding dust and giving them a surface which,, during the winter months, has the appearance of asphalt.  All the street[s] are well lighted with the Welsbach lamps.  The village is thoroughly policed by a captain, a sergeant and four patrolmen, with the result that we have been free from burglaries or thefts, and our vilage ordinances are thoroughly enforced.  Tramps and disreputable characters are absolutely unknown within the village limits.  The village government is free from politics and the officials are selected from taxpayers entirely on the basis of their interest in village betterment, thus making an ideal government.  Each official is personally interested in the work assigned to him.  One of the pleasant features of a residence in Pelham is the fact that the larger majority are property owners, and it has been an unwritten law that as each new property is developed and built upon, it conform to the properties of the neighbors, in order to make each section uniform, and the owners take pride in the appearance of their properties and the care of the same.  Lawns and terraces are kept in excellent condition and hedges trimmed uniformly, all of which adds to the beauties of the village.  One of the principal features is, the 'pull together' spirit for the purpose of continually adding to the general welfare of the village, and to keep the unimproved properties clear of all rubbish, thus adding very materially to the comfort and health of the community.

The tax assessment is based on a 50% valuation and the tax rate in the past three years has averaged $11.00 per thousand.  Every dollar spent by the village officials is for the benefit of all.  The condition of the water supply service has very materially improved in late years, and the establishment of a sewage disposal plant by the town of Pelham has perfected the sanitary conditions to the highest point of development.

Pelham is within easy access of Forty-second street, New York, with frequent train service for commuters morning and evening, which is of great advantage to the business men of the village.  The fine, large trees throughout the village, consisting of oaks, maples, chestnuts, beach [sic], hickory and beautiful dogwood which bloom in the summer, with the well kept lawns, add materially to the general appearance of the surroundings.

A well equipped fire department, consisting of automobile engine and chemical  with hose and hook and ladder truck, together with fire alarm signals, serve the village for fire protection.

Pelham is one of the most beautiful residential parks in the County of Westchester.


Source:  HISTORY OF THE VILLAGE OF PELHAM (THE HEIGHTS), The Pelham Sun, Dec. 20, 1910, p. 10, cols. 1- 7.  

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