Learn about Westchester County history and its role in the American Revolution, the arrival of the railroads in the 1840s and more. Also read "History and Antiquities", a general collection of interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, and anecdotes about Westchester County and its towns.
For the most part, the communities in Northern Westchester are less densely populated and have less commercial development than those in central and Southern Westchester. Urban development in the North County area is generally confined to historic transportation corridors along the Hudson River, the New York to Albany rail line, and the Route 9 highway, the old New York to Albany Post Road. The eastern part of the North County area, including the Towns of North Salem, Lewisboro, and Pound Ridge, tends to be less developed than the western part.
When New York City's population boomed after the 1825 completion of the Erie Canal, Westchester furnished many of the city's raw and finished goods. Iron foundries were located throughout the county, and Westchester's numerous brickyards and marble quarries provided the materials for the thousands of row houses and monumental new institutional buildings spreading across Manhattan. When Newgate Prison in Greenwich Village was no longer adequate, it was replaced in 1828 by Sing Sing, "up the river" in Westchester County. When a reliable and clean source of drinking water was needed, New Yorkers looked to Westchester, where the Croton Dam was completed in 1842. Today, the county is still a vital link in the New York City water supply system.
In the 1840s, the railroads came. In 1844, the New York and Harlem Railroad reached White Plains; the New York and Hudson River line was completed to Peekskill in 1849. That year, the New York and New Haven opened its route through eastern Westchester. Soon thereafter, population began to shift from the northern half of Westchester to the south, clustering around railroad stations. All three railroads, which now originate from Manhattan's Grand Central Terminal, are operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and are heavily used by commuters.
The railroads' effectiveness at stimulating development was seen in the establishment of Mount Vernon, which is located between New Rochelle and Yonkers and, like the other two, borders the Bronx on its south. Unlike Yonkers or New Rochelle, which date back as communities to the 17th century, Mount Vernon, "was a new idea - a community of people who were economically dependent on [New York City], and who would be traveling back and forth every day - a commuter suburb." Together, in 1851, a group of skilled tradesmen affiliated with "Mechanics Mutual Protection No. 11" in New York City purchased five farms totaling 369 acres, and subdivided them according to a grid plan. The leader of the group, John Stevens, saw the endeavor as a means of improving the condition of New York's working class by freeing it from rent payments and enabling it to enter the class of property owners. Mount Vernon was incorporated as a village in 1852, and rapidly grew to become a city 40 years later.
Between 1865 and 1920, Westchester's population boomed, multiplying from about 100,000 to almost 350,000. During the 1920s, the county's growth became channeled along the routes of its new automobile parkways, the finest highway system in America. Following the 1925 completion of the Bronx River Parkway, the world's first limited-access public motor-route, Westchester built a highway system that was second to none, much of it funded by projected increases in real estate valuations. Development, largely consisting of single-family homes along the parkways' edges, boomed.
Linked by the new highways was an equally impressive system of golf courses and lush county parks. Among these was New Rochelle's Glen Island, taken over in 1925 by Westchester County, and famous in the 1930s for the appearance of prominent big bands at its Casino; and Playland, a model amusement park completed by Westchester County in 1927. Rye Playland, now on the National Register of Historic Places, is still operated by county government. Amenities such as these earned Westchester a reputation as the nation's most desirable suburb.
Westchester's prosperity was underscored by the decision of many New York department stores to open branches in the county beginning in the 1930s. B. Altman opened its White Plains store in 1934; Arnold Constable followed, in New Rochelle, in 1937. Lord & Taylor completed its Eastchester store in 1949, the same year that Macy's opened in White Plains. In 1953, General Foods became the first of many corporations to leave behind its Manhattan headquarters for a new suburban campus, in White Plains, seen at right. The section of Westchester Avenue near White Plains, a major headquarters location, has since become known as the "Platinum Mile."
The Depression drove many farmers out of business and the dairy farms began to break up as competition from other areas lowered the demand for Westchester farm products. Rising land taxes and falling profits led most of the remaining farmers to sell out to real estate developers after World War II. In 1964, 18,500 acres were farmed in Westchester. Ten years later only 9,000 acres were farmed.
South of White Plains, the few remaining farms disappeared rapidly after 1920 as suburbanization began in earnest. William L. Ward influenced the County Board of Supervisors to create the Westchester County Planning Commission and gathered a team of county citizens to carry out his dream of developing Westchester into a suburban paradise. An overall plan for golf courses, parkways, and recreational areas created a network of beautiful open areas throughout the county.
The Bronx River Parkway is credited as the highway that opened up Westchester. It had been begun in 1906 as part of the project to clean up the Bronx River, which had become a badly contaminated eyesore by the turn of the century. In the process of building the parkway, the Bronx River bed was cleaned and dredged, 30,000 trees and 140,000 shrubs were planted, and paths and benches for the public were set among the trees and lakes. When it opened in 1925 the Bronx River Parkway drew worldwide attention to Westchester County.
The Bronx River Parkway was followed by the Saw Mill River Parkway, the Hutchinson River Parkway, the Taconic Parkway, and the Cross County Parkway, all completed by the 1930s. The scenic beauty of Westchester's parkways is still fresh fifty years later. The next major road construction did not take place until the 1950s and 1960s, when the interstate expressways and thruways were built.
The parkways brought many young, middle-class executives and professionals to Westchester to buy new homes being erected on old estates. The prosperity of the post-war period put cash in the pockets of many young families. They invested in real estate, which rapidly increased in value. Buying a home became the goal of everyone who could afford it.
Transportation was developed to accommodate the growing population. Local roads were paved, traffic regulations developed, and traffic lights installed. As the roadways improved, buses replaced the old trolley system. The Toonerville Trolley of Pelham made its last run in 1937; the Westchester bus system had replaced it.
As suburban towns grew, men and women organized a variety of social, cultural, and educational organizations. Women also nurtured the arts and other cultural activities. Membership in womens' clubs and service organizations became an integral part of the suburban life that emerged in Westchester during the 1920s and continues into the 1980s.
People enjoyed many leisure activities in Westchester during the period between the world wars. Among the achievements of William Ward and the parks commission was the creation of an overall plan for recreational areas in the county. Rye Playland Amusement Park opened to acclaim in 1928. Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, Croton Point Park, Glen Island Park, and Kingsland Point Park were also developed by the county for the public. In 1930 the County Center was opened in White Plains as an all-purpose convention space for exhibits and events.
Armonk Airport was a great recreational attraction in the late 1920s and 1930s. People came from miles around to watch the planes and barnstormers. Roadside stands and the Log Cabin Restaurant catered to the crowds. Residents still recall the phenomenal traffic jams along Bedford Road.
The entertainment industry had a brief moment of glory in Westchester when D. W. Griffith operated his movie studio complex on Orienta Point in Mamaroneck. The Gish sisters, Mary Pickford, and many other famous movie stars of the day were filmed in the Griffith studios and also on location around the county. Legitimate theater also took precarious hold on Westchester soil. The Lawrence family opened the Lawrence Farms Theatre, the first summer-stock theater in Westchester, in a barn on the former Moses Taylor estate in Mount Kisco. Day Tuttle and Richard Skinner leased the barn in 1932, and throughout the 1930s great actors and actresses like Tallulah Bankhead, Henry Fonda, and Margaret Sullivan appeared there.
The Depression hit Westchester as badly as it did the rest of the nation. Communities rallied to provide support for the unemployed. Many of the work projects sponsored by the federal government are still enjoyed by county residents today.
The period between the wars saw a number of new businesses arriving in Westchester. When B. Altman's opened a branch in White Plains in 1934, it was the first major New York department store to come to Westchester. Best and Company, Peck and Peck, and Sloane's followed in the 1940s, and White Plains became the major shopping center in Westchester County. The man credited with this development of "Little Fifth Avenue" was Leonard H. Davidow, who set a high standard of excellence in his dealings.
The Reader's Digest developed into a major publishing concern in Pleasantville during the 1930s. When the magazine outgrew its rented office space in Pleasantville, it built a spectacular colonial-style headquarters which still dominates a hill overlooking the Saw Mill River Parkway in Chappaqua.
During World War II the county once again rallied for the war effort. General Motors manufactured airplane parts, Norden bomb sights were made in White Plains, and the Alexander Smith Carpet Mills turned out tents and uniforms for the armed forces. Westchester residents enthusiastically supported scrap-iron drives for Britain in 1940. Then after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, they sent their men and boys overseas to join the Allied forces. On the home front men and women worked in the factories, joined the Civil Defense League, watched for enemy planes, and took first aid classes to be prepared in case of an enemy attack. Many took British and French children into their homes. They bought war bonds and endured the inconveniences of food and gas rationing. Then on VJ Day, August 5, 1945, it was over, and Westchester joined the rest of the nation in parades and celebrations of joy.
The post-World War II period of the 1950s was one of prosperity and optimism. Veterans returned home, married, entered the job market, and raised large families. The baby boom was on, and Westchester responded to it by building high-rise apartments, single-family homes, and schools. Ranch homes, split levels, and clapboard and stone colonials filled up the vacant lots in lower Westchester. North of White Plains, developers built hundreds of new homes in the fields and woods of the old farms.
One of the characteristics of suburban life in the 1950s was its focus on children and the family. A wide range of social, cultural, and sports activities was developed for young people. It seemed as if parents who had endured the Depression as children and the war as young adults wanted their own children to experience a full life. Families barbecued, camped, and played together. Country clubs, which had catered primarily to golf and tennis playing adults in earlier years, built swimming pools and offered competitive swimming, diving, and tennis programs for members' children.
Women in the 1950s and 1960s generally preferred to work before their children were born and, if necessary, after they were grown. However, many middle-class women did not need to work and hoped to marry soon after finishing their education. Women continued to spend the majority of their time caring for their homes and children. Social, cultural, and service clubs filled their leisure hours and satisfied their need for companionship during the day.
Since 1960 the arts have received increasing attention from the Westchester community. An educated population offered support and volunteer time to help promote historical and art museums and the performing arts. The Katonah Gallery is an outstanding example of a professional and volunteer staff working closely together to create highly professional art exhibits and programs for the public and for the schools. Many communities have active arts councils as well as private schools of dance, music, and art. In 1965 the Council of the Arts of Westchester was founded to provide funds for arts groups and promote the arts in Westchester. Corporations have led the fund raising efforts of the Council of the Arts. PepsiCo, Inc., in cooperation with the State University of New York at Purchase, created the outstanding Summerfare program which brings world-famous musical, theater, and dance groups to the SUNY Purchase campus in July and August.
The relocation to Westchester of several corporate headquarters during the decades after World War II had a major impact on the county. General Foods was the first, in 1953, followed by Ciba-Geigy, in 1956, and Nestle, in 1958. In the 1960s and 1970s many factors combined to influence the corporate giants to move their vast operations to Westchester. They had the opportunity to build their own facilities, an available work force, and the interstate road system; Westchester County Airport made the county easily accessible to the rest of the northeast.
The handsome architecture and landscaping of many of the corporate buildings make a significant contribution to the beauty of the county. In several instances, major architectural talents have been engaged to design buildings for such corporations as Union Carbide, Frank B. Hall, IBM. World Trade Americas/Far East, and PepsiCo. Their landscaped settings have provided Westchester with acres of parkland that complement the parks and parkways built in the 1920s.
In recent years, many business areas in Westchester have undergone extensive revitalization. White Plains, Yonkers and Peekskill, for instance, have undergone vast changes. Although there are many new buildings being built in Westchester today, there is a significant movement to retain fine old ones, and many landmarks have been renovated to be used as schools, colleges, and business offices. The Westchester Preservation League has worked with both individuals and municipalities to create historic districts and to save worthy buildings.
Private foundations have generously donated funds for historic preservation. None has done more than the Rockefeller family. Their creation of Sleepy Hollow Restorations has preserved Van Cortlandt Manor, Philipsburgh Manor, and Sunnyside. Local efforts by non-profit historical societies and town historians continue to keep Westchester's heritage alive through historical museums, library collections, programs, and events.
Government agencies have also supported the historic preservation of Lyndhurst, Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, and the John Jay Homestead. In October 1981 the county of Westchester was bequeathed the beautiful estate, Merestead, in Mount Kisco, by Mrs. Margaret Sloane Patterson. In 1983, Westchester County celebrated its 300th anniversary. Residents can look with pride at the past 300 years and, with that rich heritage behind them, look with confidence to the next 300 years.
The following covers "History and Antiquities", a general collection of interesting facts, traditions, biographical sketches, and anecdotes about Westchester County and its towns. When reading the following, remember to keep in mind that this information has been written about two hundred years ago. Population statistics and events have not been revised to reflect current events and perspective. We think this adds to the historical flavor and interest of the writings, giving a different perspective on much of this information and written in an "older world" writing style. The following write-up is taken, in part, from: "Historical Collections of the State of New York, Published by S. Tuttle, 194 Chatham-Square, 1841
"Westchester County, established November 1, 1683. Westchester, a residential county made up of many suburban communities, more than half the people live in the four cities of Yonkers, Mt. Vernon, New Rochelle and White Plains... The first settlement in this region was called Westchester from which the county took its name. This community, now in the Bronx, served as county seat until 1759, when a courthouse was built at White Plains. Here on July 9, 1776, the fourth Provincial Congress met to consider the Declaration of Independence. It was immediately adopted and two days later read from the courthouse steps. Today's courthouse is the fourth at White Plains. A courthouse built at Bedford after the Revolution was abandoned in 1870 although the building is still standing."
1691 - "Westchester County is of ancient date. It was represented in the first legislative assembly in the colony, which met at New York in 1691. And it has constituted one county to this time, having been organized as such by the general acts of 1788 and 1801. This county comprises a very important section of the state."
"Washed on the west by the Hudson, and on the south by the East river and Long Island sound, it enjoys very superior advantages for trade and commerce. The county general exhibits a beautiful diversity of surface, The northwester corner of Westchester County is considerably broken the SE border of the Highlands, of a mountain character, and a range of hills of moderate height extends from York Island towards the NE extremity, on which are situated the heights and hills much known in the revolution. Based upon primitive rock, the soil is naturally sterile, but is rendered productive by careful and painful cultivation. Of wheat it produces little, and the inhabitants import a large portion of their breadstuffs. Summer crops are good, and by the use of plaster, valuable returns in grass are obtained. The chief business of the inhabitants consists in supplying New York City with garden stuffs, field vegetables, butter, poultry, etc.
This county suffered severely during the revolution. The whole southern part was marked by the marches, works of defense, or skirmishes and battles of hostile armies. And, indeed, the active operations of the war in 1776, were principally confined to this region, and in the autumn to this county. where the two armies were in full force, constantly on the alert, and under the eyes of their respective commanders. The county is divided into 21 towns, all of which were organized under the act of March 7th, 1788, excepting New Castle. Population 48,687."
Bedford - History published 1841
"John Jay during the latter part of his life resided in the northern part of this town. The annexed sketch of his life is from Blake's Biographical Dictionary: "John Jay, LL.D., first chief-justice of the United States under the constitution of 1789, graduated at Kings, (now Columbia College) in 1764 and in 1768 was admitted to the bar. He was appointed to the first American congress in 1774. Being on the committee with Lee and Livingston to draft an address to the people of Great Britain, he was the writer of the eloquent production. In the congress of 1775, he was on various important committees, performing more service perhaps than any other member except Franklin and John Adams. In May, 1776, he was recalled to assist in forming the government of New York, and in consequence his name is not attached to the declaration of Independence... though not a member of the convention that formed the constitution of the United States, he was present at Annapolis and aided by his advice. He also assisted Madison and Hamilton in writing the Federalist. In the convention of New York he contributed to the adoption of the constitution. He was appointed chief justice by Washington, December 26, 1789. In 1794, he was appointed minister plenipotentiary to Great Britain, and succeeded in negotiating the treaty, which still goes, by his name. Chief-Justice John Jay was governor of the state of New York from 1795 to 1801. The remainder of his life passed in retirement. He died in 1829, aged 84."
Cortland - History published 1841
East Chester - History published 1841
Greenburgh - History published 1841
Harrison - History published 1841
Lewisboro - History published 1841
"Sarah Bishop, the hermitess, resided near the boundary line of Lewisboro and the state of Connecticut. She lived on Long Island at the time of the revolutionary war. Her father's house was burnt by the British, and she was cruelly treated by a British officer. She then left society and wandered among the mountains near this part of the state, where she found a cave near Ridgefield, in which she resided till about the time of her death, which took place in 1810. She sometimes came down to the adjoining town of Ridgefield, Conn., to attend public worship on the Sabbath. It is said that the wild animals were so accustomed to see her, that they were not afraid of her presence."
Mamaroneck - History published 1841
Mount Pleasant - History published 1841
New Castle - History published 1841
New Rochelle - History published 1841
North Castle - History published 1841
North Salem - History published 1841
Pelham - History published 1841
Pikesville Village - History published 1841
Port Chester - History published 1841
Poundridge - History published 1841
Rye - History published 1841
Scarsdale - History published 1841
Sleepy Hollow - History published 1841
"It was in this church that the never-to-be-forgotten Yankee pedagogue Ichabod Crane, in rivalry to the old Domine, led off the choir, making the welkin ring with the notes of his nasal psalmody. It was too in the ravine just back of the church, that this redoubtable hero, Ichabod, had his fearful midnight encounter with the headless horseman, and forever disappeared from the sight of the goodly inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow."
Somers - History published 1841
Tarrytown - History published 1841
White Plains - History published 1841
Yonkers - History published 1841
Yorktown - History published 1841