Quite A Bit of Local History

0:00 During more than twenty-five years as a contributor to The Rye Record, I have submitted more than 150 columns under the heading “A Bit […]

Published July 1, 2023 4:04 PM
7 min read

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During more than twenty-five years as a contributor to The Rye Record, I have submitted more than 150 columns under the heading “A Bit of Local History”. Here are excerpts from some of the columns I especially enjoyed writing.

The Russians Were Coming (December 2005)                                            

“In the summer of 1946, rumors were running rife around Rye that the Russians were coming. It was not a Red Army invasion of their commuter stronghold that the residents feared. Instead, they were alarmed that the Soviet delegation to the United Nations was considering some prime waterfront property on North Manursing Island as the site for their embassy compound. The tempest in Rye was just one of the many local, national and international subplots in the complex story of how the United Nations headquarters was nearly built in Westchester County…

In January, 1946 the General Assembly adopted a resolution that “the permanent headquarters of the United Nations shall be established in Westchester (New York) and/or Fairfield (Connecticut) counties, i.e., near to New York City…” In the August 2 issue of the Rye Chronicle a front page article was headlined “Greenwich Residents Divided over World Capital Site.” Opposition from residents of Greenwich and Stamford became so strong that the Commission deleted all Connecticut sites from its list a short time later…

 On August 16, the Rye Chronicle’s lead headline announced “Harrison Likely to be Chosen for World Capital…” Because of the mounting resistance from residents and political leaders in Westchester, the head of the American delegation to the UN, Senator Warren Austin of Vermont, announced to the press in early November that alternative US locations were being considered in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco…

Informed of the urgent need for action, Nelson Rockefeller flew back from a vacation in Mexico on December 10, 1946 to meet with his father and several of his brothers. They agreed to offer the family estate at Pocantico Hills near Tarrytown and to purchase adjacent property in order to provide more than three square miles of land to the UN. At the same time, the Rockefeller family was contacted by a major New York realtor, William Zeckendorf, offering to sell them his rights to a large area of land on the East River, known mainly for its slaughter houses. When the UN Headquarters Commission was informed that the Rockefellers were prepared to donate either the family estate in Westchester or $8.5 million to purchase the land from Zeckendorf, they voted in favor of a ‘vertical type of urban headquarters’ at the site on the East River…

After nearly a year of complicated negotiations and sometimes heated debates involving many communities, the location of the UN headquarters was settled in less than a week. Although the possible locations changed many times during the process, at least one Westchester site remained a serious candidate up to the very end…         

It is hard to imagine how different Westchester County would have become over the past 60 years if the UN had been located in Harrison or Pocantico Hills. During that period the membership grew from 50 nations to nearly 200 today, along with a proliferation of agencies and programs operating within the headquarters complex. Certainly, the region would have been hard-pressed to meet the increasing demands for office space, housing, transportation, security, and other services for U.N. representatives, employees, and visitors. However, if the U.N. headquarters had been established in Westchester with the Russian embassy located in Rye, perhaps the iron curtain would have fallen sooner.”

Recalling Woodbine 7 (April 2009)

“It may be hard for those in the younger generation to believe, but when I was a child there were no smart phones…For many decades, the world of telecommunications in the U.S. was tightly controlled by Ma Bell and her regional offspring, including New York Telephone in this area. The extensive AT&T system had an effective monopoly of both local and long-distance services until it was broken up in 1984…

My first telephonic memories are of Bakelite rotary phones and female telephone operators (there were no males) who said firmly but politely: ‘Number Please’. When calling home, my response was a simple ‘Rye 2332’. It was quite a surprise when those operators went on strike for a month in 1947. Shortly after the strike was settled …the company introduced a new telephone number plan that changed our home number to Rye 7-2332. Numerical prefixes were added in other communities as well, such as Port Chester-5, Mamaroneck-9, and Greenwich-8…

The growth in telephone lines and proliferation of calls around the country and overseas continued to force changes in technology and led eventually to the elimination of telephone operators. In 1959, a new telephone exchange system was introduced, which required that all Rye numbers begin with WOodbine7… That name has a certain charm, but it lacks the cachet of some of New York City’s great telephone exchanges, such as ‘BUtterfield 8’. It was used by John O’Hara as the title of one of his novels, which was made into a movie, starring Elizabeth Taylor…

In the 1960s, the phone company began replacing the familiar prefixes with a fully numeric system, so ‘WO7’ became ‘967’, soon to be followed by area codes. Despite the efforts of a group called the Anti-Digit Dialing League that ran a campaign against the ‘dehumanization’ of the telephone system, our iconic telephone numbers became just digits…”

Train and Trolley Battles (March 2013)

“In 1849, the newly-formed New York and New Haven Railroad (NYNH) reached Rye, and soon thereafter its steam-powered trains were running frequently between New Haven and the Bronx. There they connected with the New York and Harlem Railroad, leasing its tracks into New York City…

In 1872 the NYNH was merged into the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. The New Haven, as the larger company was generally known, grew rapidly…Despite the New Haven’s successful expansion, a company named the New York and Port Chester Railroad was formed in 1901, which planned to run an electrified railway from the Bronx to Port Chester…

Among the supporters was a prominent resident of Rye Village, J. Mayhew Wainwright, who was then a member of the State Assembly and chairman of its committee on railroads…Also, descendants of John Jay, who then owned the historic Jay mansion, agreed in 1905 to allow the NY& P to begin construction on part of their property that later became part of the Marshlands Conservancy… The construction, however, came to a halt when the Jays’ next-door neighbor, John E. Parsons, refused to have the tracks run through his land. Both of the rival railroad companies pursued their goals in the courts and legislature until they eventually decided to merge…

Messrs. Wainwright and Parsons were allies earlier during the equally contentious trolley battles. They were both leading lawyers and served jointly as legal counsel for the Rye Protective Association to oppose a proposed route for a trolley line from Port Chester to Mamaroneck that included a branch to Rye Beach. The pro- and anti-trolleyites, as the two sides were called, battled through many hearings over nearly four years. In summing up at one stage of the proceedings, Parsons emphasized the residential nature of the Village of Rye and argued that the proposed route down the Post Road and along Purchase Street would ‘destroy the character of the place.’

Eventually, the trolley battles ended with a grand compromise. Within the Village of Rye the line was allowed to run down Purdy Avenue and along Purchase Street. One branch went onto Milton Road and then down Palisade Avenue, turning right onto Meadow (now Midland Avenue) and heading to the beach on Apawamis Avenue. The other branch went down Elm Street and turned left on Railroad (now Theodore Fremd) Avenue, heading to Harrison and on to Mamaroneck. This route kept the trolley off the Post Road, whose gravel surface had recently been replaced with macadam through Rye thanks to a gift by Joseph Park. 

The railroad and trolley battles rallied many residents behind the efforts of the Rye Protective Association to promote the interests of the Village…It examined the services provided to the Village by the Town of Rye in comparison to the taxes paid That led to the incorporation of Rye Village as a self-governing municipality, which became a city in 1942 …”

Harrison’s Purchase (February 2016)

“You could be forgiven if you thought that the rivalry between Rye and Harrison began in 1929 when the two high schools played the first of their of annual football contests. In fact, its origin can be traced back more than three hundred years. In 1662…the original Rye settlers purchased a tract of land situated between Blind Brook and the Mamaroneck River from local Indian elders. Four years later another Rye settler bought from other Indians a more extensive tract…

This territory remained vacant and uncultivated for more than three decades… In 1695, John Harrison, newly arrived from Long Island, bought much of the same the territory (thereafter called ‘Harrison’s Purchase’). The seller was an Indian who professed to be ‘the true owner and proprietor’, according to Rye’s noted historian Rev. Charles W. Baird. 

Whether Harrison was aware of the prior title claims is a matter of dispute, but it is clear that the no patent had been obtained from New York by any Rye resident. Rye was originally part of the Colony of Connecticut, but in 1683, it was ceded to the province of New York, despite objections from the residents… 

Harrison’s Purchase was surveyed by order of the Governor of New York, and a patent was granted by the British government to Harrison and his four associates. The inhabitants of Rye opposed the grant, but instead of combining their forces, they presented two separate claims. Disregarding both of the Rye claims, the Governor validated Harrison’s Purchase in 1696… 

Baird provides a dramatic account of what happened next: ‘Under this grievance, the town of Rye seceded. It renounced the authority of the provincial government and returned to the colony of Connecticut…During the four-year period (1696-1700) when Rye was again part of Connecticut, Harrison’s Purchase remained part of New York…The first substantial settlement of the town did not occur until 1724 when a group of Quakers (Society of Friends) arrived from Long Island. There is a legend that the area they settled was called ‘Purchase’, because the town map was on two pages with ‘Harrison’ shown on the first page…

Until the Revolution, Harrison was considered a precinct within the Town of Rye, and in March 1788, it became a separate township within the state of New York. Many of the original land owners in Harrison were members of old Rye families, including Haviland, Park and Purdy, so the rivalry can be seen as just a family feud over grievances against the colonial government, which helped sow the seeds of the Revolution .”

To be continued, hopefully.

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