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.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

City Island Always Voted No

Throughout much of the 19th century, most of the population of the Town of Pelham lived on City Island -- not on the mainland.  Thus, initiatives to appropriate taxpayer funds for improvements on City Island were nearly always successful.  In contrast, initiatives to appropriate taxpayer funds for improvements on the mainland (including appropriations to repair roads and bridges on the mainland) often failed either at the ballot box or during votes taken at meetings of the Town Board controlled by City Island residents.  Residents of Pelhamville, Prospect Hill, Pelham Manor, and Bartow grew angrier by the year about their circumstances.  As far as they were concerned, "City Island always voted no."  The battle became one between the islanders and the mainlanders.  

By the late 19th century, the mainlanders came to believe that a City Island based Democratic political machine had control of Pelham politics and would never vote "yes" in support of initiatives to improve infrastructure on the mainland.  Residents of Pelham Manor began to grumble that the appropriations process was so unfair to mainland residents that it violated State law.

By 1884, one mainlander was fed up.  That pseudonymous mainlander wrote a searingly-sarcastic letter to the editor of a local newspaper and signed it "THE MACHINE."  The letter purported to present outrage on the part of the Democratic machine that controlled town politics directed against mainlanders who would presume to insist that the appropriations process be applied fairly throughout the town.  The Machine, according to the tongue-in-cheek letter, called upon the newspaper to help prevent mainlanders -- particularly those who lived in Pelham Manor -- from "utterly ruining" the Town by insisting that the Town comply with State law requiring fair appropriation of funds for the benefit of all taxpayers.  

The letter described Pelham Manor residents in a drippingly-disparaging tone as "confirmed and habitual ministers, lawyers, merchants, and the like" and emphasized that "all are well known to the police, as inveterate taxpayers."  

Though we may smile at the letter today, it actually reflects a rather painful time in the political history of the Town of Pelham.  Understanding that history helps us understand, in part, how City Island was included in the annexation during the mid-1890s of the lands that comprise Pelham Bay Park.

1881 Map of the Town of Pelham Showing the Mainland and the
Islands that Comprised the Town Before Annexation.
Source: Bromley, George Washington & Bromley, Walter Scott, 
Westchester County, New York, From Actual Surveys and
Official Records, pp. 56-57 (Washington, D.C.: G.W. Bromley &
Co. 1881). NOTE: Click on Image to Enlarge.

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Below is the text of the pseudonymous letter, followed by a citation and link to its source.


As a patriotic citizen of the town of Pelham, I wish to ask you to assist us in preventing our town from being utterly ruined by the people of Pelham Manor and vicinity.  It is universally conceded, that these people are among the worst in Westchester county.  Many of them are confirmed and habitual ministers, lawyers, merchants, and the like, and nearly all are well known to the police, as inveterate taxpayers.  In fact, there is nothing too wicked for them.  Lately, these depraved people, stifling all sense of shame, have endeavored to promulgate the dangerous doctrine that the laws of the state ought to be enforced in the town of Pelham.  They even wish to apply this horrible theory, to the annual appropriations for the wise and beneficent purpose of removing dirt, stones, sticks, tin cans, and similar materials from the gutters, and placing them in the middle of the road, where they appear to much better advantage.  These people actually have the audacity to say that the great and glorious town meeting, held by us each year, in humble imitation of the example of our illustrious forefathers, has no power to appropriate more than the legal amount for this purpose, or for the purpose of building pretty bridges.  This theory is, of course, absurd on its face.  Is not the money of the town the people's money, and ain't we the people?  What right has the legislature to interfere with us?  And, moreover, has it not been the custom, for years, to appropriate money illegally?  And does not this fact show that we have the right to do it?  I defy any man in Pelham Manor to cite a single instance in which money has ever been legally appropriated in the town.

But notwithstanding the innate absurdity of the new doctrine, I fear it is making rapid progress in the town.  Men, who for a long time, have secretly believed in it, now come out openly and advocate the pernicious theories of the new reform party in favor of honesty and good government.  We have fought it through the medium of anonymous and untruthful letters, and by all means in our power, but without avail.  Pelhamville is already as good as lost to us, and Bartow seems to have gone over to the enemy.  City Island, we have managed to retain thus far, by judiciously misrepresenting the motives of the Pelham Manor party, and particularly by stating that it is in favor of no appropriations whatever.  But still, we fear that when its mischievous and deadly principles become thoroughly known, all the honest men on the Island will act with it, and we shall be left in a hopeless minority.  Mr. Editor, what shall we do to save?


Source:  TO THE EDITOR OF THE CHRONICLE, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Feb. 29, 1884, Vol. XV, No. 754, p. 3, col. 3.  

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