The first "Pelhamville" Train Station as depicted in Scientific American, January 16, 1885.
For most of Pelham’s history, the train has been at the heart of what it means to live in this small town, almost like an umbilical cord to the great nearby metropolis. Indeed, being walking distance to a train station was the very concept and foundation on which Pelham’s distinct neighborhoods were built. It remains one of the unique characteristics that still make the town such an attractive location.
The construction of the “New York, New Haven & Hartford Rail Road” (now operated as “MetroNorth”), inspired the earliest residential development in Pelham. In 1850, a group of New York City tenants pooled their funds through the “United Brothers Land Society,” and acquired 180 acres of Pelham farmland. They put down roads in a grid, all numbered from First to Fifth Avenues (and later adding, Sixth through Eighth), formed individual lots, and developed a little community they called “Pelhamville.” They built cute Victorian houses, places they could own with pride, and, as they said at the time, “create an independence from landlordism, which is one great cause of their poverty and want.”
At first, Pelham was just a “flag stop” on the New Haven line, requiring a flag to be raised to signal the conductor to pick up passengers. Pelhamville residents built the first depot structure in 1851, on the condition that Pelham would be a regular stop. This inspired Benjamin Corlies and Benjamin Fairchild to purchase an expanse of virgin forest south of the station in 1889. Here they laid out a woodland park neighborhood, preserving the natural landscape of native trees and shrubs, into which great, unpainted, Shingle Style homes were carefully inserted in a neighborhood they named “Pelham Heights.”
Pelham's New Haven Line Train Station built about 1895 in a photo from c. 1927. (Photo digitized from the Village of Pelham historic photo album)
Construction of the current Pelham Train Station commenced in about 1895, replacing the earlier station building that stood near Wolfs Lane. The train tracks at that time ran at grade through Pelham and It was not until 1902 that the tracks were elevated to cross above Highbrook Avenue to the east of the station and above Wolfs Lane to the west. Putting the tracks above grade required raising the elevation of the tracks into Pelham Heights along First Street, which created a stir among local residents. (Mary Anthony (nee Robbins) recalled her mother, a resident of Cliff Avenue, being very upset that in raising the tracks, the railroad plowed under a long hedge of old-fashioned roses that were planted along the original tracks when the train line was first built.)
Building of the Highbrook tunnel in 1902
With the construction of the new station and regularly scheduled stops, Clifford B. Harmon in 1909 acquired the land on the north side of the train station, east of Fifth Avenue, and created a neighborhood he called “Pelhamwood,” featuring an eclectic mix of architectural style homes, most with Ludowici terra cotta tile roofs.
The Pelham Manor Train Station built in 1908. (Demolished about 1953 for construction of New England Thruway.) Photo from Pelham Town Historian “Montgomery Slide” Collection (Digitized no. 7-114)
Another branch of the same New Haven line led to a station stop in Pelham Manor (the tracks now used by Amtrak) and caused Silas Witherbee and others to form the “Pelham Manor & Huguenot Heights Association,” which in 1873 advertised a “New City on the Sound” with “Quick Transit Already Secured” “Thirty five Minutes from Grand Central Depot.” The first part of that development, south of the Boston Post Road, was called “Chestnut Grove,” where the streets extended out from the station like long fingers – Pelhamdale Avenue, Edgewood Avenue, Highland Avenue – with no regard for the need for many cross streets because the focus was entirely on accessing the train. High-style Victorian homes sprouted up along these roads, sparsely at first, and then more rapidly after the erection of an imposing stone, Romanesque-style train station at the end of the Esplanade, designed by the world class architect, Cass Gilbert, in 1908, just about the time he also began designing Manhattan’s Woolworth Building.
New York, Westchester & Boston Railway overpass and station in Pelham on Fifth Avenue at Third Street (site of the new village municipal center is on the right). From Engineering News, 1916.
At the north end of the town, it was the “New York, Westchester & Boston Railway” that, beginning in 1912, provided service to New York through not one, but two stops in Pelham: one at the end of Young Avenue and another in the center of Fifth Avenue. This made it possible to walk to the train from Chester Park, transforming it from its origins as a summer community to become a suburban neighborhood.
Passengers waiting on the north-bound side of the New Haven Line c. 1960, prior to tracks being elevated (Photo from a private collection)
In the age of the automobile, Pelham went from these four train stations to one. The historic depot that is so prized today has not always looked so great. At one point it was painted white, then red, the platform was raised in 1972, and many of its historic details were lost or covered over. But the building survived and was restored in 2005; it remains the oldest station still in service in Westchester on the New Haven Line. For over 125 years, commuters have sat inside on the same original wooden benches in the waiting area, bound for that center of the universe called New York City, and have returned at the end of the day to a little town that seems like Mayberry, and is made possible by, the train.