The Process Of Urban Development

I’ve written before about how insanely convoluted the history of land in Manhattan can be, but that’s honestly an easy target. Manhattan is the site of the most intense urban development in the US, so we’d expect its history to be messy. In trying to answer what I thought was a simple question about the Bronx, I recently got sucked into a history maze of surprising complexity. I’m going to outline the main points below, but I could write ten blog posts about the mess I stumbled into.

Until Penn Station and its tunnel system opened in 1910, the only direct heavy rail service to Manhattan was from the north, for the simple reason that the Harlem River is relatively narrow and easy to bridge, while the East River is a wide tidal strait with fast currents and the Hudson River is a very wide estuary. The East River bridges, starting with the Brooklyn Bridge in 1883, carried trolleys and elevated trains, but no bridges were built (despite some abortive plans) to carry intercity rail over the two big rivers. If we look at the rail system in 1871, when the first Grand Central opened, three lines had direct access into Manhattan: the Hudson line (which was the main line of the New York Central Railroad, running up the east bank of the Hudson as far as Albany, before turning west), the Harlem line of the NYCRR (which provided the Park Avenue approach to Grand Central and was a mostly-commuter line running through the small towns and farmland east of the Hudson), and the New Haven Railroad, a separate company (running northeast through Connecticut and Rhode Island to Boston) that leased track rights from the Harlem to gain access to New York.

The New Haven RR had been pieced together from a series of small roads, and leased rights from the Harlem in the 1840s to avoid having to build or buy its own tracks through the farmland of the east Bronx and down into Manhattan. The NH’s rails suddenly swerve west well north of the current NYC limit (the north boundary of the Bronx) to join up with the Harlem line. However, that branch has only ever carried passenger traffic and there was obviously a lot of money to be had in carrying freight to and from NYC, so there was a second, more southerly branch of the NH that roughly followed the east shore of what is now the Bronx, serving a freight terminal at the southern tip of the Bronx. That branch, known as the Harlem River and Port Chester Railroad, was another small line that the NH had bought, and carried enough freight to be a reasonably heavily-built line. It also had a small passenger service, connecting the southern Bronx to the towns northeast. That service was largely parallel to (and predates) the elevated train now known as the Lexington Avenue Local (6 train). In the 1873 map below, from a development company pushing houses in the new suburb of Pelham Heights, A is the main line of the New Haven, B is Grand Central, C is the main line of the Harlem, D is where the New Haven swerves west to join the Harlem, E is the Harlem and Port Chester branch of the NH, F is the Harlem River, and G is Bartow Station (see below). The shaded part of the Bronx (north and east of the Harlem River) was the first part of the mainland to be added to New York City; everything east of that would be added in 1895 and 1898, becoming the Bronx as it is today.

The question I was trying to answer concerned a station on the Harlem River and Port Chester, called Bartow Station, which had a short useful life. There wasn’t much reason for a station there: it was the rural southern part of the town of Pelham, much of it still owned by descendants of the Bartow family. (The 1830s family mansion stands, and is a museum and designated landmark.) There was, however, a thriving fishing village on City Island, due east, and the station was the only land transportation near the island. The original station was apparently a small wood structure, similar to a house. Shortly after 1900, the railroad hired Cass Gilbert to design new stations for the Harlem River and Port Chester, which seems like overkill: why hire a prominent architect to design lightly-used stations on a dead-end branch line? The answer is that the New Haven had a plan to abandon the Harlem-line lease and Grand Central, and build its own terminal in the future metropolis of Port Morris at the south tip of The Bronx. Changes in the city zoning made that plan impossible (rather than merely ridiculous, as it had been) but meanwhile the Bronx got some nice new Gilbert Stations.

On a separate note, the new station was no longer next to a tiny village, it was, by 1900, in a park. The New York State legislature approved purchasing the farms and estates of Pelham Neck and the surrounding areas to create Pelham Bay Park; the city bought the land in 1887 and opened it as a park the following year. It is important to note that at this time, the park was entirely outside the city limits and would remain so until 1898. So Bartow Station was serving people on City Island and people going to the park.

In the 1880s, a private company built a narrow-gauge streetcar to connect Bartow Station to City Island, as the Pelham Park and City Island Railroad, which was in total about three miles long. Shortly after the new station opened at Bartow in 1908, that line was converted for a few years to a form of monorail, the only time that system has been used in New York. It was later converted to an ordinary street car, but that only lasted until 1919, when the City Island line was closed for lack of traffic; Bartow Station and passenger service on the Harlem and Port Chester were abandoned in 1931, effectively superseded by the subway. Bartow Station is currently a picturesque ruin, but it is safe to say that it will be completely gone in a few years.

It’s interesting how the repetition of the names Bartow and Pelham on several geographic features have clouded the story. Bartow Station was in the town of Pelham until 1898, but it never served a real neighborhood because that portion of the town consisted of large rural estates. In any case, the moral: never assume that the history of any piece of land is simple.

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