At the Crossroads of Change: Westchester in the Gilded Age
Before there was a Kennedy and a Fortune 500 CEO in every Westchester PTA meeting, an elite few made up the Westchester royalty of the late 1800s. This is how they lived.
Built in Tarrytown in 1838, the Gothic Revival Lyndhurst mansion was bought by industrialist Jay Gould in 1880
Photo courtesy of Lyndhurst Collection, Westchester County Historical Society
Exactly one mile north of the Irvington train station, there is a bridge that leads to nowhere. It extends out from the land, over the train tracks—and the trains, too, for that matter—and stops, holding still in mid-air as if waiting for an industrious crew of iron workers to arrive and finish the project. Where wooden planks once made a deck, three-foot gaps between rusted beams are all that remain. At the western edge, facing the Palisades Sill, is a thirty-foot drop to the Hudson River. But it was not always this way. This bridge, built in 1883, was once a gateway to New York City for one of the world’s richest (and most misanthropic) men.
A few miles upriver, in Sleepy Hollow, is another forgotten relic. I came to Kingsland Point Park in search of the only lighthouse in Westchester. The lighthouse, which was constructed in 1883, was no longer active, but it had once been a symbol of change, of progress, of industrialization and modernization, of Westchester’s transition from sparsely inhabited outpost to burgeoning bucolic epicenter. In 1883, the waterway was busier than ever: The years since the Civil War had seen cities and towns across Westchester suddenly spring to life. Industry was booming. Factories were pumping out millions of pounds of metal, formed stone, and brick, and the lighthouse’s rotating lantern was all that prevented weary mariners towing supplies from crashing their steamships.
As I circled the deck of the lighthouse, my iPhone blasted out notifications of emails, text messages, and Facebook alerts. I pushed aside my
modern-day surroundings, imagining a time when the inaugural keeper of the lighthouse, Jacob Ackerman, a former schooner captain, climbed its stairs at dusk to fire the lantern. I stopped and cupped my hands against the first-floor window. The living quarters looked unbearably small. A rocking chair and a small wooden desk filled the round room. The brick walls were cold. Ackerman’s tenure, by all estimations, had been a simple existence; he and his wife had lived a life of solitude in a time that elsewhere was exemplified by a flourishing American social life, a time when the poor were destitute and the wealthy lived in unimaginable opulence, a time that would define our nation for decades to come.
It was a time now referred to as the “Gilded Age.”
Don’t let the name fool you. This era—roughly the last quarter of the 19th century—was a time of tremendous tumult. Having been gutted by the Civil War, America was in survival mode and a dramatic period of rebirth was in full swing. The upper echelon of the business world was populated by a barbaric set of men whose moral fabric had been eroded by rampant cronyism and greed. These were men, often operating out of plush Fifth Avenue offices, who stopped at nothing to further their own interests through “artful” elimination of the competition. Where injunctions and lawsuits failed, assassinations and lynch mobs usually did the trick, often with few repercussions from law enforcement. To be fair, this prevailing attitude perpetuated itself, forcing many good men into a position of moral abandonment in the name of self-preservation. (The current rash of doping scandals in modern athletics seems like an appropriate, albeit less bloody, analogy.)
Westchester, for its part, remained moderately cloistered from the hysteria that was common in the more urban parts of the country. The region was vast, undeveloped, and pleasantly pastoral—a perfect escape from city life. Around 1870 (recognized, more or less, as the dawn of the Gilded Age), New York’s elite began flocking to Westchester in droves, buying large parcels of land for the purpose of constructing palatial weekend retreats. The land was comparatively cheap and offered limitless possibilities for development.
Incidentally, it was the possibility of recreation—not development—that brought many of the most famous men in American history to the County. John D. Rockefeller’s purchase of land in Pocantico Hills allowed him to indulge his growing obsession with golf (a private golf course on the Rockefeller estate is still used by the family today); Jay Gould came to Tarrytown largely because of his fascination with horticulture; US Representative John H. Starin bought Glen Island in New Rochelle and promptly turned the property into a lavish amusement park; Russell Hopkins, heir to the Lambert Pharmacal Company (original maker of Listerine) empire, built the nation’s largest private menagerie on his Tarrytown estate and filled it with flocks of exotic birds, a stable of zebras, and an assortment of wild boars and ostriches.
According to Laura Vookles, chief curator of Collections at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, many of Westchester’s upper crust turned to recreational pursuits as a way of distancing themselves from the turmoil of the period. “[Financier James Boorman] Colgate had an alligator that he kept on the lawn,” says Vookles, chuckling. “John Bond Trevor [whose riverfront mansion, Glenview, in Yonkers, is an active exhibit at the Hudson River Museum] bred violets and chrysanthemums. I am sure that part of the reason for being in the County was to be a country gentleman—a gentleman farmer.”
By 1890, along with a vastly improved transportation system that allowed ease of access to New York City, soaring Gothic Revival mansions dotted much of the prime waterfront property along the Hudson. Krystyn Hastings-Silver, preservation manager at the Lyndhurst estate in Tarrytown, says that because of the highly competitive atmosphere in New York City, the mansions on the Hudson were meant to be places of respite where a titan and his family could relax.
Not that they could always escape. Their celebrity tended to follow them, even without Twitter to make that kind of hounding easy for fans and supplicants. According to one contemporary tally, in just a single week in about 1915, soon after the end of the Gilded Age, Helen Gould Shepard (Jay’s eldest daughter, who had owned his Tarrytown mansion, Lyndhurst, since his 1892 death) received in the mail 231 requests for money, 11 requests for pianos, seven announcements that a child had been named after her, two questions about how to publish a book, four letters in “Russian or Swedish,” and one request for $1 million to found a colony in Cuba. She received more than 1,300 pieces of mail, of which just 126 were “personal letters.”
Still, “for many of the historic houses that I have worked in, it was always family first,” says Hastings-Silver. “There is a big aura of myth that surrounds them and makes them less real, but they were families who loved each other and cared for each other, contributed to the community, and cared about things that we care about. There was the public face and the private face.”
The diary of Trevor’s daughter Emily, for instance, describes carriage rides with her mother, playing with her beloved nephew, and ice skating with friends. But it also cites dinners with a senator and luncheons with members of still-famous families like the Winthrops (this isn’t surprising, since Emily’s sister had married one) and the Van Rensselaers. She spent many evenings at the theater in box seats.
Along with the possibility of lavish recreational pursuits, many wealthy families, according to Hastings-Silver, came to Westchester as a way of sidestepping obstacles presented by the explosive growth of the period. “They were coming against mechanization, the Industrial Revolution, emigration, all these changes—the world was changing exponentially, and imagine the pastoral beauty of being here,” says Hastings-Silver, gazing wistfully at the rolling lawns of Lyndhurst. “You get to concentrate on what is important.”
While the mansion is the main tourist attraction at the estate, Hastings-Silver points out that there are several lesser-known buildings on the property, including horse stables and the framework of a steel greenhouse, that offer fascinating perspectives on high society and class distinction during the Gilded Age.
One such outpost is the bowling alley, which, according to Hastings-Silver, is believed to be the oldest regulation, two-lane, private indoor alley in the nation. Jay Gould, widely known as as one of the most prolific robber barons of the time, purchased the Lyndhurst estate in 1880 with the intent of using it as a country retreat for himself, his wife, Helen, and their six young children. Gould was one of the most misunderstood—and perplexing—individuals of the age. He was a small, diligent fellow from the Catskills who had experienced a meteoric rise from hardware-store clerk to controlling partner in several major transportation firms—including the Erie and Union Pacific Railroad Companies. He also had a controlling interest in the Western Union Telegraph Company as well as in several newspapers. He was widely criticized for making millions of dollars in elaborate stock-market manipulations often involving “pump and dump” schemes with his own companies. Today, those kinds of activities would likely land him in prison for decades.
Keeping pace with the opulence of the times, Helen Gould, Jay’s eldest daughter, had the bowling alley installed in a small building along the river’s edge. “In the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, recreation and physical activity were very important,” says Hastings-Silver. “Bowling was one of the few activities that men and women could engage in together. It was a social game and one of the few sports where they were on an even playing field.”
It is worth noting that, unlike with today’s automated lanes, bowling in the late 1800s required the assistance of several adolescent servants—known in modern parlance as “pin boys”—to retrieve the pins, manually set each pin at the appropriate spot, roll the ball back on a downward sloping wooden rail, and quickly scurry into a small pit behind the lane before another ball came crashing towards them. It must be said, too, that there is a somber undercurrent to this whole scene: Historically, pin boys were low-paid, part-time workers who were often striving, in some form or another, to support a struggling immigrant family. One can only imagine what it must have been like to huddle in a dark hole while watching a young Helen Gould and her cadre of giddy socialites enjoy a Sunday game.
But things weren’t always so pleasant for Westchester’s elite. Business had a way of seeping through the marble facades of the mansions, instantly replacing the serenity of country life with the black cloud of rivalry and competition.
On June 25, 1883, the New York Daily Tribune ran a story about the completion of a new mega-yacht built for Gould. “The Atalanta, which was built by Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia, has cost in the neighborhood of $500,000. The frame and hull are of iron of the best material, and the bulwarks are of solid mahogany. The interior furnishings are of polished hard woods, elaborately carved. The social hall is in the forward part of the deckhouse, and is furnished with every convenience as a lounging and smoking room.” The story continues, describing in detail Gould’s enormous stateroom, with “polished mahogany and other hard woods, Persian carpets, a satin couch, rosewood cabinets, and damask hangings.” The Atalanta even came outfitted with a state-of-the-art ice machine, a full-time crew of 55, and silver-plated toilet seats.
Gould, who had recently become the third owner of the Lyndhurst estate (named for the linden trees on the grounds), made plans to moor his 243-foot, steam-powered yacht on a floating dock in the Hudson. To access the dock, which was intersected by the Hudson River Railroad line, an iron bridge fitted with a pedestrian walkway was built over the tracks formerly owned by Gould’s nemesis and fellow railroad tycoon, Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt.
The two men had feuded ceaselessly over the years. Scarcely a year had gone by when one hadn’t sued the other—the battles were usually long and drawn out, often ending with a judge (who had likely taken bribes from both sides) siding with the party who had offered the largest pecuniary incentive for his impartiality. Gould, along with his business partners, owned a controlling stake in 15 percent of the country’s railroads, including the Union Pacific. Vanderbilt, who was Gould’s senior by 42 years, had been the sole owner of the coveted New York Central & Hudson River Railroad Company lines—lines that Gould desperately wanted to acquire.
So it stands to reason that it may have been a thorn in Gould’s side to have had a glaring set of Hudson River Railroad tracks cutting through the heart of his newly acquired Tarrytown estate. Because of their direct, uninterrupted access to the City, the tracks would have been a nice perk to living in an affluent enclave of Manhattan. But for Gould, the tracks were an ever-present reminder of his conflicts with Vanderbilt. Even after Vanderbilt’s death in 1877, Gould steadfastly refused to ride on the New York Central & Hudson River lines, even if it meant finding—or building—an alternate mode of transportation to his downtown offices.
It was Gould’s good fortune to have inherited riparian rights with the purchase of his country estate, allowing the building of a pedestrian bridge that extended up over the tracks, allowing him direct and unfettered access to his prized yacht. The building of the bridge, along with the acquisition of water privileges, ensured that he would never be a passenger on a train to or from the City. Though no known photographs exist of Gould on the bridge, it seems plausible that at its completion, he may have stood proudly on its wooden planks, arms hanging loosely over the railing, while Vanderbilt trains roared beneath his feet.
These types of battles (“won’t ride on train,” “must build yacht”) exemplified the prevailing sentiment of the age. Excess was in vogue; competition was fierce. It was a furious climate in which rules were more like guidelines and one-upmanship—regardless of how it was achieved—was paramount to success.
Years after Gould’s death in 1892, the Atalanta (aptly named after the Greek heroine known for her speed) was sold to the Venezuelan Navy, which then converted it to a gunship. In a New York Times article from 1901, it was reported that, when the sailors found themselves low on coal during a trip to the state of Vargas to hand over the vessel, the “cabin furnishings, rich articles of furniture that had been in the yacht since the days of Jay Gould, were dumped into the furnaces.”
Today, many of the relics of the Gilded Age have also gone the way of scrap. Rob Yasinsac, who runs hudsonvalleyruins.org, a website that monitors the demolition of historic buildings in Westchester, says that the preservation of historic structures in the country has, in recent years, taken a back seat to capitalism. “People don’t really tend to appreciate older buildings that are in a state of neglect now,” says Yasinsac. “They kind of consider it a sign of stalled progress or an eyesore and feel they have to take them down.”
It is worth considering, however, that the Gilded Age should not be forgotten. History, as we all know, tends to repeat itself, and the events of the last decade—especially within the financial sector—closely resemble the type of market manipulation and greed that clouded the latter part of the 19th century.
As I made my final turn on the deck of the lighthouse, I took one last look at my surroundings. The Tappan Zee Bridge loomed large in the distance. Its construction in 1955 is what made the lighthouse obsolete. A helicopter buzzed overhead. A group in the park was setting up for a barbecue, and one woman carried a mass of balloons while a man hoisted a giant plastic cooler onto a picnic table. I looked at the group of people, who were only a few hundred feet away. Not once did they look up from their endless bustling to take notice of me, or the lighthouse. It was almost like we didn’t exist.
Nathan Laliberte is a freelance writer and former resident of Hastings-on-Hudson. Though he recently moved to New York City, Nathan continues to explore Westchester’s rich and diverse cultural history. This is his fifth piece for Westchester Magazine.