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.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Pelham Voted in 1908 to Build its First Public High School, Now Known as Siwanoy Elementary School


Not long after the turn of the Twentieth Century, the population of the Town of Pelham began to explode.  In 1900, the population of the Town was 1,571.  In 1905, the population had reached 1,841.  By 1910, the population had grown to 2,998 -- nearly doubling over a ten-year period.  With the expanded population came expanded needs for facilities to service young scholars in the Town. 

Pelham, however, did not have its own public high school.  The Pelham public school system offered only eight grades of study.  Pelham sent its young scholars who wished to continue their education to the high schools of other communities such as Mount Vernon and New Rochelle. 

The time was ripe.  The need was great.  The citizens of Pelham and their Board of Education stepped up and created the "Pelham High School, and Siwanoy Grammar School."  The new facility was dedicated in 1911.  The school building they built we know today as Siwanoy Elementary School located at 489 Siwanoy Place in the Village of Pelham Manor.



Undated Postcard View of "Pelham High School, Pelham, N.Y."
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

The decision to build a new school, including how to pay for it and where to locate it, was not easy.  Moreover, when the process began, it was not even clear that the building would be dedicated as a high school.  Rather, Pelham Manor and Pelham Heights parents were furious that their elementary schools were overcrowded and outdated and wanted something done about it.  I have written before about the process of opening the new school we now know as Siwanoy Elementary School.  See Mon., Mar. 10, 2014:  Dedication of Pelham's New High School in 1911, Now Known as Siwanoy Elementary School.

A series of events pushed the matter to the fore in 1908.  First, of course, was serious overcrowding in Pelham Manor and Pelham Heights schools (see Mar. 10, 2014 article cited above).  Second, earlier in the year, on Wednesday, March 11, 1908, a terrible fire in an old wooden public school house in North Collinwood, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland) killed nearly 170 young school children.  The terrible tragedy attracted attention throughout the nation and was even referenced during the debates in Pelham about the need to build a new school and close the old wooden schoolhouse in Pelham Heights.  Pelham parents considered the old Pelham Heights school building to be a firetrap.

In addition, once the School Board began considering the need to build a new school building, it realized that it might actually save some money (in annual operating expenses) by building a structure that could house not only elementary students, but also high school students.  Because Pelham had no high school at the time, Pelham students who wanted to continue their studies after the eighth grade had to attend high schools in Mount Vernon or New Rochelle.  The Pelham school district had to make expensive tuition payments to such high schools for each student who chose to attend.  In 1908, the School Board was projecting that the expense would continue to grow as an additional ten students each year were projected to attend high school.

To make matters more pressing, in 1908, Mount Vernon High School announced that it no longer had the capacity to accept any additional high school students from Pelham.  This meant that future Pelham high schoolers would have to attend New Rochelle High School -- a much less convenient and more distant school for most Pelham families

On the evening of August 4, 1908, the Pelham school district held its annual meeting.  Three school board trustee positions were up for election and there was a plan to offer a resolution authorizing the board to spend $66,000 to build a new schoolhouse in Pelham Manor.  The turnout was massive.  Over three hundred voters attended the meeting.

After the election of three new trustees, attendees began a debate regarding whether to build a new schoolhouse and, if so, whether it should be located where today's Siwanoy Elementary School stands.  The debate focused on the fact that the site had frontage on Pelhamdale Avenue where trolley cars passed throughout the day and night.  Parents felt the trolley cars presented an unreasonable danger to school children.  Proponents of the plan argued that they "did not think that because it was located on the trolley line should cause the parents much concern, that it would be possible to locate a school for the two villages where the children would not have to cross the tracks and that the school would be five feet above the road, and that the grounds would be fenced in and that the children could be made to leave the school by the back door and in that way have plenty of time to give vent to some of their enthusiasm so they would not rush across the tracks."

Former Congressman Benjamin L. Fairchild opposed the site selected by the School Board.  He was in favor of a site for an elementary school bounded by Highbrook, Witherbee and Monterey Avenues.  If, however, the School Board decided to include a high school in the building, he favored a location bounded by Pelham Street on the north and east, and Manor Lane on the north and west.  In an effort to block the School Board's proposal, Fairchild proposed a resolution providing, among other things, as follows: 

"Resolved, that it is the sense of this meeting that a site for a school building be selected which shall not abut upon any street containing a trolley line and that the matter of a school site for a combination school for Pelham Heights and Pelham Manor is hereby referred back to the school board, with the request that they arrange either for the site bounded by Highbrook and Witherbee avenues on the west and by Monterey avenue on the south and east, or the site bounded by Pelham street on the east and Manor lane on the north and west."

The resolution was adopted by a large majority in attendance at the meeting.  A procedural battle, however, promptly broke out over how the resolution was presented and whether a previous resolution could be decided.  Based on the procedural issue, the meeting was abruptly adjourned to the consternation of many attendees.  No School Board vote was held on whether to purchase the property and build a new schoolhouse.

Throughout autumn of that year, the School Board continued its efforts to build some consensus on buying property and building a schoolhouse where today's Siwanoy School is located.  Finally, on November 13, 1908, the School Board called a special meeting to vote on the matters.

This time only half as many voters attended the meeting (barely more than 150).  After members of the School Board made a presentation on the financials that would underlie the purchase and construction of the school at the site the Board favored, a new safety issue arose.

At that time, the tracks of the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway had not been laid.  For years there had been debate and competing proposals to run two different railroad lines through Pelham -- one through a portion of Pelham Manor and another through the Village of North Pelham.  One early proposal provided that a rail line would enter Pelham Manor near today's Iden Avenue and cut across to New Rochelle passing right by the site selected by the School Board for the new school.  There was extensive discussion over the fact that the early proposal to build a line through Pelham Manor had been all but abandoned and that the only railroad likely to be built in the near future would pass through North Pelham.  The School Board promised to require, if a railroad passed nearby, the construction of a massive fence that could not be climbed by the school children to keep them away from the tracks.  

That night a proposition to authorize the School Board to purchase a site for a new school was passed by a vote of 105 to 53.  A separate proposition to build a new school building passed by a vote of 102 to 49.  The purchase of the site and the erection of the school were expected to cost $70,000 requiring issuance of bonds.

Less than a week later at a regular meeting of the School Board, a local engineer reported that he had obtained formal confirmation that no railroad line would be built through Pelham Manor -- only the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway through North Pelham.  The die was cast.  Within a short time, the School Board went through with its plans to buy the site, build the new structure and open both an elementary school and high school in the new building.

To assuage parental concerns over the trolley cars on Pelhamdale Avenue, however, the School Board decided to place the school far back from the roadway.  Once the school opened, students were also dismissed from the back of the school on the side away from Pelhamdale Avenue so young students would not run giddily into the path of a trolley car as they departed school each day.
 
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Below is the text of a number of newspaper articles that form the basis of today's Historic Pelham article.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.

"EXCITEMENT AT PELHAM ELECTION
-----

North Pelham, Aug. 5.  --  The most exciting school meeting that has been witnessed in this town in twenty years, was held last night in the Pelham Heights schoolhouse.  The fact that three new trustees were to be elected and a resolution authorizing the board of education to expend $66,000 for the erection of a new school house in Pelham Manor brought out over 300 voters.  North Pelham, with the assistance of some of the voters of Pelham and Pelham Manor, so controlled the meeting, that they easily elected their nominees, H. Elliott Coe and C. T. Johnson.  A total of 316 votes was cast of which number Mr. Coe received 158 votes; C. T. Johnson, 93, and Seth T. Lyman, 65.  Hugh Herndon was unanimously elected to succeed Willis E. Bacheller.

The resolution to purchase land in Pelham Manor and erect a new school building to cost $66,000, caused considerable discussion, and Ben L. Fairchild presented a resolution, a substitution for the original resolution, which referred the original resolution back to the board.  This resolution was adopted by a large majority and means that the erection of a new school building will be considered at another meeting.  

At the conclusion of the meeting a number of the friends of George Bowden, one of the outgoing trustees, from North Pelham, tendered him a reception in Pelham hall [the main building of Mrs. Hazen's School for Girls on the Esplanade], where Mr. Bowden was given a vote of thanks for his efforts in behalf of his constituents.  Mr. Bowden would not allow his name to be used again for re-election, owing to pressure of business.

The meeting was called to order at 8:30 o'clock by President James F. Secor, who acted as chairman.  The secretary of the meeting was Kneeland S. Durham, clerk of the board; Peter Vander Roest and Jacob A. Heisser were appointed tellers.

After the minutes of the last annual meeting were read and approved, the annual budget which called for the expenditure of $18,030 for school purposes, was adopted, each item being voted on separately.  Then came the election of three trustees in place of Willis E. Bacheller, of Pelham Heights; George Bowden and Seth T. Lyman, or North Pelham.

Five nominations were made, as follows:  North Pelham H. Elliott Coe, nominated by Mr. Smith, seconded by Eugene Lyon; Henry Kavanagh, nominated by Mr. O'Donnell, seconded by John Cottrell; Charles T. Johnson, nominated by David Lyon, seconded by John Cottrell; Seth T. Lyman, nominated by Lewis W. Francis, seconded by John T. Logan.  Pelham Heights, Hugh Herndon, nominated by W. L. Jaques, Jr., seconded by Elbert H. Kingsland.

On motion of Robert A. Holmes, the secretary was instructed to cast one ballot for the election of Hugh Herndon, of Pelham Heights.

The meeting then proceeded to ballot for the election of the two trustees in place of George Bowden and Seth T. Lyman.  Henry Kavanagh declined to allow his name to be used.  His action left H. Elliott Coe, Charles T. Johnson and Seth T. Lyman.  After the ballots had been cast and the votes counted, the tellers announced the result of the election as follows:  H. Elliott Coe, 158; C. T. Johnson, 93; Seth T. Lyman, 65.  Mr. Coe and Mr. Johnson were declared elected trustees, amid applause.

While the ballots were being counted and after the result was announced, the meeting discussed the advisability of erecting a new school building for Pelham and Pelham Manor.  Trustee Henry L. Rupert said in part:

'It takes sometimes a public calamity to awaken the public conscience.  I have in mind that terrible catastrophe in that Ohio town last winter when scores of school children perished in the flames.  We have in this locality a school house that is a perfect tinder box.  A spark of fire would ignite that building so quick that the escape of many of the school children from that place would be an impossibility.  Many children would be burned to death and we need a new school in Pelham Manor.'

He said that the Mount Vernon board had informed this board that it could take no more children from Pelham.  Mr. Rupert said that this action meant that the Pelham children would have to attend the New Rochelle high school which he said was not easily accessible, that the location selected by the board was central and that the board was practicing economy in the matter of the erection of the new school.

After Clerk Durham read the resolution relating to the purchase of land in Pelham Manor, Trustee Robert A. Holmes said that it would be next to criminal for the board of education to attempt at present to sell either the land in Pelham and Pelham Manor on which the present school buildings are located on account of the inactivity of the real estate market.  It would be much better to wait until later in the year; that the location selected by the board for the new school was the best and most available one in the vicinity.  He did not think that because it was located on the trolley line should cause the parents much concern, that it would be possible to locate a school for the two villages where the children would not have to cross the tracks and that the school would be five feet above the road, and that the grounds would be fenced in and that the children could be made to leave the school by the back door and in that way have plenty of time to give vent to some of their enthusiasm so they would not rush across the tracks.

One of the property owners wanted to know what objection was to the present site in Pelham Heights.  Trustee Holmes replied that the site was not centrally located; not easily accessible that it was not fair to ask the Pelham Manor residents to send their children so far and that it was not healthy.  The board had lost one of its best teachers because of ill health caused by the poor location.

Trustee Lewis W. Francis then presented facts showing that by expending $66,000 for the purchase of land and the erection of the new school, the district would save $856 a year.  He said that the fact might seem ridiculous on the face of it but it was nevertheless so.

Ben L. Fairchild said that he was in favor of a new school for Pelham Manor, but was opposed to the site on the ground that the lives of children would be constantly endangered by the trolley cars.  The parents of a number of the scholars had spoken to him about these dangers.  He was in favor of a site bounded by Highbrook, Witherbee and Monterey avenues, for the equal benefit of Pelham and Pelham Manor scholars, but if the board was contemplating installing of a high school department, he said he was in favor of a location bounded by Pelham street on the north and east, and Manor lane on the north and west.  By such an arrangement there would be a direct line of communication with the North Pelham school, and the school would be centrally located for all three villages.

The following resolution was then presented by Mr. Fairchild and adopted by a large majority:  'Resolved, that it is the sense of this meeting that a site for a school building be selected which shall not abut upon any street containing a trolley line and that the matter of a school site for a combination school for Pelham Heights and Pelham Manor is hereby referred back to the school board, with the request that they arrange either for the site bounded by Highbrook and Witherbee avenues on the west and by Monterey avenue on the south and east, or the site bounded by Pelham street on the east and Manor lane on the north and west.

'Be it further resolved, that the school board be requested in the event that they decide in favor of the last above mentioned site to also ascertain what arrangements can be made to lay out and continue a street westerly from Manor lane to Wolf's lane or to the Esplanade in the vicinity of the connection of Wolf's lane and the Esplanade.

'Be it further resolved that the school board be requested, when they have arranged for either one of the two foregoing sites to call a special meeting in accordance with law for the purpose of taking action upon such a site.'

Trustee Rupert after the resolution was read, and President Secor ruled that it could be voted on, demanded that a vote by ayes and noes be taken.  This vote was first given viva voce.  But Mr. Rupert said that he wanted the response of each voter present, individually.  This was done and it was twenty minutes before the task was completed.

Then President Secor started to ask for a vote on the original resolution, when he was informed by Mr. Fairchild that there was no need of doing this, in view of the fact that the resolution which had just been passed was a substitution for the original resolution.  Trustee Rupert said that he understood that it was an amendment and that for that reason he had demanded a vote in the manner that he did.  Mr. Fairchild said that it was not an amendment.  In spite of Mr. Fairchild's declaration, there were those in the room who were certain that he presented the resolution to the meeting as an amendment.

As the resolution which Mr. Fairchild presented was a substitution, no action could be taken on the original resolution and the meeting adjourned before the voters had hardly realized what had taken place."

Source:  EXCITEMENT AT PELHAM ELECTION, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Aug. 5, 1908, p. 3, cols. 3-4.  

"BUILD NEW SCHOOL IN PELHAM NOW
-----

North Pelham, Nov. 14.  --  By overwhelming majorities, the propositions to purchase land and to erect a new school building in Pelham Manor for the villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor, were passed at a special school meeting last night, in the Pelham Heights schoolhouse.  The proposition to purchase a site was passed by a vote of 105 to 53, while that to build a new school building went through by a vote of 102 to 49.  The purchase of the site and the erection of the school will cost $70,000.

The meeting was called to order by President Robert A. Holmes, of the board of education, who said in part:  'All we want is a square deal in this matter.  The laws of nature take no account of such artificial lines as political boundaries.  It is just as necessary for the villages of Pelham and Pelham Manor to have a new school, as it is for the village of North Pelham.  We cannot afford to have better facilities for one section of the town than another.  We are asking for good facilities here, as North Pelham has been enjoying for a number of years.

'The financial end of this question should be the least of all to be considered.  So far as the board of education is able to figure, the present plan should reduce expenses in the town.  This idea has been under consideration for two years, and has been discussed at public meetings in the three schools in the town.'

Trustee Lewis W. Francis gave some figures showing how the erection of the new school would be less expensive than the present plan.  He said that at the present time there were six teachers in the two schools of Pelham and Pelham Manor, which are paid in salaries $4,500 a year.  According to the proposed plan in the consolidated school, there would be employed eight teachers, who would be paid salaries amounting to $6,400.  The interest on the bond issue is now $520.  It would be the same under the other plan.  The interest on the addition to the Pelham Manor school would be $800 a year.  The interest on the new plan would be $2,600.  The town is now paying for high school tuition $3,300, and the high school scholars are gaining at the rate of ten a year.

John Butler, of Pelham Heights, said that too much attention was being paid in the country to higher education.  He favored a plan of manual training and vocational training and moved that a committee be appointed to take the matter p, but his motion was not seconded.

It was then moved by John F. Fairchild that the board of education be authorized to issue bonds for $45,000 for the purpose of purchasing a plot of land as designated in proposition No. 4.  Trustee James F. Secor moved to amend the resolution by substituting in place of it, proposition No. 2.  

Just previous to the putting of this motion, Mr. Heath wanted to know if the tracks of the New York, Westchester and Boston railroad would not pass near the site.  Mr. Fairchild then gave some history of the New York, Port Chester and Boston, and the New York, Westchester and Boston railroads.  He said, that according to the original plan of the latter, the road would enter Pelham Manor through the Iden property and go through the business section of New Rochelle, while the Port Chester road would go through Mount Vernon about where the Columbus avenue station is located and then through North Pelham, by the way of Third street, into the sparsely built section of Westchester road were operating under a franchise granted some years ago, while the Port Chester road was operating under a new franchise.  The two roads fought each other.  Then the New Haven road bought out the control of both roads.

Mr. Fairchild further said that the route of the Westchester road had been practically abandoned as far as he could learn from an unofficial source.  He continued, 'I doubt if the railroad would ever be constructed along the route of the New York and Westchester railroad in Pelham Manor.  The site for the new school in either proposition 2 or 4, is about in the center of the town.  It is about as near geographically as it could be.  It is equally accessible to all parties.  To my mind, the purchase of the entire block is the best thing for the town.'

In answer to other questions by Mr. Heath, Mr. Fairchild said that the center of the Westchester road would be about 100 feet from the nearest point of the school plot.  Mr. Heath seemed to think that such a site would be dangerous for the children.  Mr. Secor said that Mr. Heath could depend on the village of Pelham Manor to see to it that the Westchester road would construct its tracks in such a way that the children would be protected and would be in no danger at all.  

'The children can climb the fences.' Mr. Heath said.

'Well, we will make them build a fence so high that they won't be able to climb it,' Mr. Secor said.  (Laughter).

Charles Gillette said that he happened to be a member of the village board of Pelham Manor when the trustees granted a franchise to the Westchester road to go through the village ,that the village trustees were assured that the cut would be sufficiently and properly protected.  He said that the chances of the road going through the village of Pelham Manor were now remote, indeed.'

Then the vote was taken, as stated above."

Source:  BUILD NEW SCHOOL IN PELHAM NOW, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Nov. 14, 1908, p. 3, col. 2.  

"NO ROUTE THROUGH PELHAM
-----

That the New York, Westchester and Boston Railway has abandoned its proposed route through the village of Pelham Manor is certain, according to statements made by Engineer Fairchild [i.e., John F. Fairchild] at the school meeting in Pelham Friday night.

The question was brought up if the proposed route of the New York, Westchester and Boston railroad would not interfere with the location of the new school.  It was shown that since the New Haven road had purchased both the Port Chester and Westchester roads, that the proposed route of the Westchester would in all probability be abandoned.  This information was the first of its kind that has come to the notice of the public, and was somewhat surprising in nature, in view of the fact that it was only two years ago that the village trustees of Pelham Manor had granted a franchise to the Westchester to construct its road through the village.  

Mr. Fairchild said that in his opinion the New Haven road would not operate its road at all along the route as proposed by the Westchester through Pelham Manor, but that it would follow a route near that planned by the Port Chester road.  The road would not extend farther north than the North Columbus avenue station, Mount Vernon.  The nearest point of the new road to Pelham Manor will be at Sixth street and Fulton avenue, Mount Vernon.  The road will then continue on north near the water tower and then to White Plains.  The New Rochelle branch will extend through the village of North Pelham, about where the houses formerly occupied and owned by Dominick Smith now stand."

Source:  NO ROUTE THROUGH PELHAM, New Rochelle Pioneer, Nov. 21, 1908, Vol. 50, No. 34, p. 3, col. 4.  



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