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, December 04, 2017

The Sad Tragedies that Marked the Opening and First Week of Willson's Woods Swimming Pool in 1928


"The Pelham youngsters are assured of a clean
and safe place to bathe at Willson's Woods."

-- The Pelham Sun, July 6, 1928.

After numerous drownings in Pelham Reservoir during the first two decades of the 20th century, Westchester County decided in the 1920s to develop "Willson's Woods Park" at Pelham Reservoir and to construct an amazing "one-million-gallon" swimming pool and recreational facility with the most modern safety features and recreational amenities.  With construction of the Hutchinson River Parkway at about the same time, Westchester hoped to turn the region into a recreational mecca to supplement the beautiful parkway intended, initially, for world-class recreational automobiling.  

Westchester County acquired Willson's Woods in 1924.  The area was named after a former owner, Charles Hill Willson, who became wealthy after founding the Willson & Adams Lumber Company.  The twenty-three acre park is one of the oldest in the Westchester County Park system.  

In 1927, Westchester County began construction of a major swimming and recreational facility in the new park.  It was a one-million-gallon swimming pool with a two-story Tudor Revival style bathhouse and dance hall.  The facility reportedly cost about $500,000 (about $7,000,000 in today's dollars) to construct in 1927 and 1928, shortly before the stock market crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression.

It is only possible to understand the importance of the two projects to establish Willson's Woods Park and to build Willson's Wood's Bathing Pavilion and Swimming Pool if one also understands the intent behind the construction of the adjacent Hutchinson River Parkway at about the same time.  The Parkway was not intended, at the time, to serve as the broken and overburdened major transportation artery that it is today.  Rather, the "park" was intended to be an automobile "parkway" -- something all of Pelham and the surrounding region expected to be an impressive recreational centerpiece of the region.  The entire region expected that the Parkway and its associated local parks, paths, and recreational facilities would become the envy of the nation and a centerpiece of the affluent suburban life of leisure in the New York metropolitan region.  Obviously, "we wuz snookered."  

Yet,looking back lovingly at our history without hindsight, Willson's Woods Swimming Pool was built in 1927 and 1928.  It was scheduled to open on June 29, 1928.  Heavy rains in the last weeks of June that year, however, delayed some of the final work required to complete the facility and a roadway leading to it.  Thus, the opening and dedication ceremonies were rescheduled for Wednesday, July 4, 1928:  Independence Day.  

On the appointed day, many Pelham public officials attended the opening ceremonies.  The Mayor of the City of Mount Vernon, Hon. James F. Bert, delivered the keynote address.  Additionally, officials of the Westchester County Park Commission participated in the program.  At the conclusion of the remarks, a large crowd of bathers crowded into the massive pool.  According to The Pelham Sun, the "majority" of swimmers that day (and, it turned out, for a long time to come) were Pelhamites.  

At the time of opening of the wonderful facility, the Pool Director who supervised it was Lyman Jordan of Chester Park in the Village of North Pelham.  He managed a large crew of lifeguards who were led, in turn, by Albert Abkarian from the Village of North Pelham.  He was a Cornell University student who served as Captain of the lifeguards.  Three lifeguards were on duty at all times Monday through Friday.  An additional two lifeguards were added on Saturdays and Sundays.  

Though the pool was open from 10:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m. daily, no additional swimmers were admitted to the facility after 8:00 p.m. each evening.  A particularly notable feature of the new facility was that it was lit with electric lights for "night bathing."

The admission price to Willson's Woods Swimming Pool on weekdays was 35 cents for adults and 15 cents for children.  On Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays, the admission price climbed to 50 cents for adults and 25 cents for children.  To encourage youngsters to use the facility, there was no charge for children under twelve on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

At its opening, the pool had the most modern safety features then available.  According to The Pelham Sun:  

"The most modern safety devices have been installed in the pool.  Where the depth changes from four to ten feet a line of red lights will gleam from the bottom of the pool.  A guard rope will also float across surface of the water at this point.  For night swimming powerful electric lights have been installed along the base of the diving pool.  In the bathhouses a fully equipped First Aid station has been installed.  Compete life guards will be on duty at all hours when bathing is permitted."

The facility also was an impressive marvel of architecture and functionality.  There was an immense, "splendidly designed entrance through which one gets the first glimpse of the shimmering water in the immense pool beyond."  The main bathhouse had two wings, with dressing rooms that opened off the main entrance in both wings.  The second story of the bathhouse included a tea room and a dance floor.  Upon opening of the facility, weekly dances in the second floor ballroom became a feature of the facility.  The facility was able to accommodate fifteen hundred people at once.  

Huge chlorination tanks provided support for the one million gallons of water, all of which was "frequently filtered and changed to insure perfect sanitation."  At the time of opening, a major playground adjacent to the pool was still under construction, although it was finished the first season.  Smith Brothers Contracting Company of the Village of North Pelham was heavily involved in grading for the project and in completing the roadway to the pool "in record time."  

The natural wooded setting of the new pool in the midst of what then remained of "Willson's Woods" made the facility "one of the most attractive places in this section of the country" according to one news report.  The pool itself was massive.  It was 235 feet long and 135 feet in width.  Its depth ranged from one foot to ten feet.  For two hundred feet, its depth was only four feet, allowing hundreds of young people and even non-swimmers to frolic in the water on hot days "in perfect safety."  At one end of the pool, there was a ten-foot deep area marked for swimmers and swimming competitions that ran the width of the pool (135 feet) and was thirty-five feet wide.

At the time of its opening, the facility became a major recreational destination for Pelham.  Since then, generations of Pelham youngsters and their families have enjoyed a respite from summer heat in the Willson's Woods Swimming Pool just as many Pelhamites did when the pool first opened on July 4, 1928.

That hot, sunny Independence Day, bathers crowded into the pool immediately after the last remarks during the opening ceremony.  A major swimming competition was scheduled in the pool later that day.  

One certainly can imagine the peals of laughter, the squeals of joy, the splashing, and the chatter of the crowd.  The pool was filled with Pelhamites, as well as citizens of Mount Vernon and the surrounding region enjoying the sparkling new facility.    

The lifeguards, of course, were vigilant.  The crowd was massive, however.  It seems that even with the "most modern safety features then available" as well as a team of well-trained lifeguards considered to be among the elite of "college athletes" from Cornell, Notre Dame, and Colgate, things could still go awry.

Only hours after the bathing pavilion and pool first opened, tragedy unfolded and "clouded the opening" of the new facility.  In the midst of all the joyous confusion, the body of nineteen-year-old Wilbert Hogan of 647 South Sixth Avenue in Mount Vernon was found at the bottom of a shallow portion of the pool.  The new lifeguard crew of college athletes, led by Pelhamite Albert Abkarian, recovered Hogan's body.  Medical examination failed to reveal whether the poor young man suffered heart failure "or died through some injury received in diving."  

A most joyous occasion was marred by a terrible tragedy and became part of the history of Willson's Wood Swimming Pool, summer home of generations of Pelham youngsters.  Yet, tragedy was not yet over, it seems.

On Thursday, July 9, 1928 -- only five days after the initial pool opening -- tragedy struck again.  A little before 7:00 p.m. that evening, 58-year-old Olive N. Vander Roest of 214 Second Avenue in the Village of North Pelham was bobbing, swimming, and enjoying the fresh, cool waters of the pool.  She hopped out of the water, likely dabbing herself with a towel and heading toward the dressing rooms.  

Mrs. Vander Roest felt ill and entered the bathing pavilion bathhouse.  She suffered a hemorrhage and died "a few minutes later."

News reports immediately announced that, wiithin five days, there alreaady had been two deaths at the new "Willson's Woods Swimming Pool."  Thankfully, such reports had little impact.  As the ocean waves of life washed over Pelham and Mount Vernon in the decades since, all in Pelham and the surrounding region have looked to Willson's Woods Park as a place of respite.



Today's DeMatteo Pavilion at Willson's Woods Swimming Pool.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.



Pool Area of Willson's Woods Swimming Pool.
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.



March 4, 1926 Architectural Rendering of Willson's Woods "Bath House."
NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.



Early Construction of Willson's Woods Swimming Pool
on November 7, 1927.  NOTE:  Click on Image to Enlarge.

*          *          *          *          *

"It Will Be A Glorious Fourth Of July At Opening of Willson's Woods Swimming Pool On Parkway
-----
Pelham Will Share Benefits Of Half Million Dollar Bathing Pool, Which Will Be Opened To Public Wednesday.  Many Protective Devices Will Assure Safety Of Swimmers.  Westchester County Park Commission Sponsors New Recreation Facilities
-----

It will be a real Fourth of July Declaration of Independence from the discomforts of summer heat that will be issued Wednesday morning when the Westchester County Park Commission opens the new Willson's Woods Swimming Pool, just across the Hutchinson River Parkway from Pelham.  Brief and informal ceremonies of dedication have been planned.  The Hon. James Berg, Mayor of the City of Mount Vernon, will make the dedicatory address.

Although the new swimming pool is situated entirely within the City of Mt. Vernon, its close proximity to the Pelhams will make it a local institution, and the youngsters as well as the grown ups of Pelham who enjoy aquatic sports will find much to their liking there.

Finishing touches are being put on the half million dollar bathhouse and swimming pool.  It was anticipated that the place would be ready today but the heavy rains delayed completion of concrete paving and other parts of the work.  Smith Bros. Contracting Co. of North Pelham, are constructing the roadway from East Lincoln avenue to the bathhouses.

The natural wooded setting of the new swimming pool makes it one of the most attractive places in this section of the country.  The pool itself is of the most modern type, measuring 235 feet in length by 135 feet in width.  Its depth ranges from one foot to ten feet.  For two hundred feet of its length the depth is no greater than four feet making it possible that many hundred youngsters and non-swimmers can frolic in the water in perfect safety, while for swimmers there is a thirty five foot wide by 135 foot long pool which is ten feet deep, that will provide ample room for enjoyment of the more strenuous aquatic sports.

(Continued on page 3)

Willson's Woods Pool Will Open Wednesday
-----
(Continued from page 1)

The most modern safety devices have been installed in the pool.  Where the depth changes from four to ten feet a line of red lights will gleam from the bottom of the pool.  A guard rope will also float across surface of the water at this point.  For night swimming powerful electric lights have been installed along the base of the diving pool.  In the bathhouses a fully equipped First Aid station has been installed.  Compete life guards will be on duty at all hours when bathing is permitted.

The bathhouse and power station group is constructed of tile and stucco.  Entrance is through a splendidly designed entrance through which one gets the first glimpse of the shimmering water in the immense pool beyond.  The dressing rooms open off the main entrance in both wings of the building.  Accommodations have been provided for fifteen hundred persons.

On the upper floor of the bathhouse a tea room and dance floor has been installed.  Weekly dances will be the feature of this part of the park.  

At the easterly side of the pool the [illegible] has been installed.  Huge chlorination tanks will accommodate one million gallons of water which is required to fill the pool.  Water will be frequently filtered and changed to insure perfect sanitation.

There also will be an immense playground arranged in the park adjacent to the swimming pool.  Work of grading this playground has already been started.

A small admission price will be charged at the swimming pool."

Source:  It Will Be A Glorious Fourth Of July At Opening of Willson's Woods Swimming Pool On Parkway -- Pelham Will Share Benefits Of Half Million Dollar Bathing Pool, Which Will Be Opened To Public Wednesday.  Many Protective Devices Will Assure Safety Of Swimmers.  Westchester County Park Commission Sponsors New Recreation Facilities, The Pelham Sun, Jun. 29, 1928, Vol. 19, No. 18, p. 1, cols. 2-3 & p. 3, cols. 4-7.  

"Youth Dies In Swimming Pool In Opening Day At Willson's Woods
-----
Body Of Mt. Vernon Youth Found At Bottom Of Pool.  Cause Of Death Not Determined.  Many Bathers Take Advantage Of New Facilities Offered By Westchester County Park Commission
-----

The unfortunate death of one bather clouded the opening of Willson's Woods Swimming pool Wednesday.  The body of Wilbert Hogan, 19, of No. 647 South Sixth avenue, Mt. Vernon, was found at the bottom of the pool a few hours after the bathing pavilion was opened to the public.  Medical examination has not revealed whether the youth was a victim of heart failure, or died through some injury received in diving.  The body was recovered by life guards.

Many Pelham public officials attended the opening ceremonies Wednesday morning.  The Hon. James F. Bert, mayor of the City of Mt. Vernon and officials of the Westchester County Park Commission participated in the program.  At the close of the ceremonies bathers were admitted to the pool for the first time.  During the week there have been several hundred bathers at the pool daily.  According to reports the majority are Pelhamites.

The pool is under the supervision of Lyman Jordan, of Chester Park.  He is assisted by an efficient life guard crew, composed of college athletes.  Albert Abkarian, of North Pelham, a student of Cornell University, is captain of the life guards.  Other members of the staff are Charles Johnson, of Colgate and Otto Streve, of Notre Dame.  Two additional life guards will be on duty on Saturdays and Sundays.  

The pool will open daily from 10 a.m.  None will be admitted after 8 p.m.  Bathers, however, will be allowed to remain in the pool until 10 p.m.  A battery of electric lights have been installed for night bathing.

Special provision has been made for the accommodation of youngsters, and there will be no charge for children under 12 years of age on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

During the week an admission price of thirty-five cents is charged for adults and fifteen cents for children.  On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays the admission price will be fifty and twenty-five cents.

The bath houses will accommodate fifteen hundred bathers.  Many bathers living in the neighborhood of the pool wear their bathing suits to the pool.  Bathers who wear their suits to the pool [must] also wear suitable outer clothing in crossing the parkway property.

Smith Bros. Contracting Co. have completed the roadway to the pool in record time.  Inclement weather had delayed work somewhat and the contractor was forced to crowd a large gang of workmen on the job in order to complete it within the specified time.

The Pelham youngsters are assured of a clean and safe place to bathe at Willson's Woods."

Source:  Youth Dies In Swimming Pool In Opening Day At Willson's Woods -- Body Of Mt. Vernon Youth Found At Bottom Of Pool.  Cause Of Death Not Determined.  Many Bathers Take Advantage Of New Facilities Offered By Westchester County Park Commission, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 6, 1928, Vol. 19, No. 19, p. 1, cols. 1-2.

"Youth Dies In Swimming Pool In Opening Day At Willson's Woods
-----
Body Of Mt. Vernon Youth Found At Bottom Of Pool.  Cause Of Death Not Determined.  Many Bathers Take Advantage Of New Facilities Offered By Westchester County Park Commission
-----

The unfortunate death of one bather clouded the opening of Willson's Woods Swimming pool Wednesday.  The body of Wilbert Hogan, 19, of No. 647 South Sixth avenue, Mt. Vernon, was found at the bottom of the pool a few hours after the bathing pavilion was opened to the public.  Medical examination has not revealed whether the youth was a victim of heart failure, or died through some injury received in diving.  The body was recovered by life guards.

Many Pelham public officials attended the opening ceremonies Wednesday morning.  The Hon. James F. Berg, mayor of the City of Mt. Vernon and officials of the Westchester County Park Commission participated in the program.  At the close of the ceremonies bathers were admitted to the pool for the first time.  During the week there have been several hundred bathers at the pool daily.  According to reports the majority are Pelhamites.

The pool is under the supervision of Lyman Jordan, of Chester Park.  He is assisted by an efficient life guard crew, composed of college athletes.  Albert Abkarian, of North Pelham, a student of Cornell University, is captain of the life guards.  Other members of the staff are Charles Johnson, of Colgate, and Otto Streve, of Notre Dame.  Two additional life guards will be on duty on Saturdays and Sundays.

The pool will open daily from 10 a.m.  None will be admitted after 8 p.m.  Bathers, however, will be allowed to remain in the pool until 10 p.m.  A battery of electric lights have been installed for night bathing.  

Special provision has been made for the accommodation of youngsters, and there will be no charge for children under 12 years of age on Tuesday and Friday mornings.

During the week an admission price of thirty-five cents is charged for adults and fifteen cents for children.  On Saturdays, Sundays and holidays the admission price will be fifty and twenty-five cents.

The bath houses will accommodate fifteen hundred bathers.  Many bathers living in the neighborhood of the pool wear their bathing suits to the pool.  Bathers who wear their suits to the pool much [sic; should be "must"] also wear suitable outer clothing in crossing the parkway property.

Smith Bros. Contracting Co. have completed the roadway to the pool in record time.  Inclement weather had delayed work somewhat and the contractor was forced to crowd a large gang of workmen on the job in order to complete it within the specified time.  

The Pelham youngsters are assured of a clean and safe place to bathe at Willson's Woods."

Source:  Youth Dies In Swimming Pool In Opening Day At Willson's Woods -- Body Of Mt. Vernon Youth Found At Bottom Of Pool.  Cause Of Death Not Determined.  Many Bathers Take Advantage Of New Facilities Offered By Westchester County Park Commission, The Pelham Sun, Jul. 6 1928, p. 1, cols. 1-2.  

"PELHAM WOMAN DIES SUDDENLY AT LOCAL POOL
-----
Mrs. Olive Vander Roest, Widely Known In Pelham, Victim of Heart Attach and Hemorrhage
-----
HAD BEEN IN BATHING
-----
Collapses After Coming from Pool and Dies In Short Time
-----
IN POOL SOMETIME
-----
LIved In Pelham Many Years -- Daughter of Late John T. Logan
-----

Seized with a hemorrhage while bathing last evening in the new Wilson [sic] Woods swimming pool, Mrs. Olive N. Vander Roest, 58, of 214 Second avenue, North Pelham, died a few minutes after she had left the pool.  Death was due to the hemorrhage and heart trouble according to Medical Examiner Squire who viewed the remains.

The death of Mrs. Vander Roest is the second death to occur at the new pool within five days, as Wilbert Hogan, 19, of this city, was drowned July 4 a few hours after the pool had opened.

According to a report made to the Mount Vernon police Mrs. Vander Roest was . . . bathing in the pool shortly before  7 o'clock.  She had been in the pool for some time.  She became ill and went to the pavilion at the bath house and died a few minutes later of a hemorrhage.

Gives Treatment

Dr. M. J. Mayer of Beekman avenue, who was at the pool at the time treated the woman.  The Mount Vernon hospital ws notified after the woman had become ill and Dr. Belsky responded with the ambulance.  

The Mount Vernon police were informed of the case shortly after 7 o'clock and Motorcycle Officer McDonald responded at the same time that the ambulance was called.  He reported that the woman had been seized with a hemorrhage in the mouth and died shortly after on the pavilion of the bath house.

The case was investigated by members of the Parkway police who where assigned to duty at the pool.
-----
Lived In Pelham

North Pelham, June [sic] 10. -- Mrs. Olive Vander Roest, 214 Second avenue, who died last night at Willson's Woods, the new Mount [sic] swimming pool, from a hemorrhage of the throat, was well known here.  

Mrs. Vander Roest, who had been born in New York city, had lived in North Pelham most of her life and was well-known in the village.  She was a daughter of John T. Logan, Civil War veteran, and was a widow.  

Mr. Vander Roest is survived by two sons.  Policeman George Vander Roest, of North Pelham and Edward Vander Roest, of Long Island City, and by one brother, Bert Logan, of North Pelham.

The funeral services will be held from the Church of the Redeemer and Rev. Brown will conduct the services.  The time and the interment will be announced later."

Source:  PELHAM WOMAN DIES SUDDENLY AT LOCAL POOL -- Mrs. Olive Vander Roest, Widely Known In Pelham, Victim of Heart Attach and Hemorrhage -- HAD BEEN IN BATHING -- Collapses After Coming from Pool and Dies In Short Time -- IN POOL SOMETIME -- LIved In Pelham Many Years -- Daughter of Late John T. Logan, The Daily Argus [Mount Vernon, NY], Jul. 10, 1928., Whole No. 11,778, p. 1, col. 1.  

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