21 Days That Changed Westchester
A timeline of our county’s most consequential events
17,847 B.P. (before present time)
The last Ice Age ends
Okay, this date may be off by a day or two — or a millennium or two. But on some warm summer day 18,000 years ago, give or take, the last icy bits of the great Laurentide ice sheet melted away, leaving behind the wet, rocky, inhospitable land that now constitutes Westchester County. The Laurentide sheet was part of the mile-thick Wisconsin Glacier, which stretched, at its maximum about 22,000 years ago, from southeastern Alberta, Canada, across the Great Lakes and over New England. New York City and Long Island sat under the southernmost edge of the glacier, and they wouldn’t look like they do without all the rocks, sediment, and water left behind as it retreated. It’s why Cortlandt is hillier than Port Chester, why so-called kettle ponds, like Armonk’s Wampus Pond, are so cold and deep, and why Long Island exists at all.
A ship sails upriver
For many centuries, the Mahicannituck (“the Waters That Are Never Still”) was traveled and fished by the Muhheconneok, the people of these waters. Their ancestors told of strange ships sailing nearby in 1524 and 1525, but on this day, a ship sails up the river, into the headlands and 150 miles north before being turned back by narrow passage and sailing away 20 days later. Over those 20 days, the native people trade furs with the visitors (and kill one of them with an arrow to the neck). The people could not know that their sacred river would soon bear the name of this man, Henry Hudson, and that Hudson’s people and their followers would, within 200 years, force them from their home forever — setting forth the globalization that made Westchester, and indeed the rest of the nation, what it is today.
The Battle of White Plains
During the run-up to the War for Independence, both loyalists and revolutionaries occupied the county, and after the Continental Army’s defeat at the Battle of Long Island, George Washington and his men retreated into the hills around White Plains. British general William Howe’s troops advanced from New Rochelle and Scarsdale and engaged Washington at Chatterton Hill (also known as Battle Hill). British and Hessian soldiers charged up the hill from the Bronx River, drove the American troops from the hilltop and forced them to escape to New Jersey. The loss devastated the area; by 1780, war chronicler James Thacher, MD, described “a country in ruins. A large proportion of the proprietors having abandoned their farms, the few that remain find it impossible to harvest their produce. Banditti, consisting of lawless villains…devote themselves to the most cruel pillage and robbery among the defenseless inhabitants between the lines.”
The Battle of Kingsbridge
It didn’t take long for wars to erupt between the Europeans and native Munsee Indians, who’d inhabited the Hudson Valley. In 1643, what became known as Kieft’s War decimated the Wappinger tribe, and the notorious British Indian raider John Underhill devastated an Indian village near present-day Bedford in 1644. The Peach Tree War of 1655 left another 60 or so Wappinger dead, and their confederation broke apart, with survivors moving to live with neighboring tribes in Stockbridge, MA. Under British rule in the late 1600s and early 1700s, much of the Munsee land around present-day Bedford was sold to the British, the deeds signed off by an Indian leader named Katonah. During the Revolutionary War, the few remaining Munsee joined forces with the Colonial Army, but many of them were killed — including their powerful sachem Daniel Nimham — at the notorious Battle of Kingsbridge (memorialized in stone, right) in what is now Van Cortlandt Park. The survivors joined their brethren in Stockbridge, and by the early 1800s, there were virtually no natives left in Westchester County.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is published
“From the listless repose of the place, and the peculiar character of its inhabitants, who are descendants from the original Dutch settlers, this sequestered glen has long been known by name of Sleepy Hollow.... A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere.” So wrote one Diedrich Knickerbocker in the sixth installment of the serial The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Both Knickerbocker and Crayon, of course, are pseudonyms for Washington Irving, who almost singlehandedly created America’s first and most abiding mythology, anchored in Westchester County. The Headless Horseman, by the way, may have been inspired by a real-life Hessian soldier who lost his head by cannon fire during the Battle of White Plains.
The Croton Dam and Aqueduct are built
The cholera epidemic of 1832 killed about 4,000 people in New York City and forced city leaders to realize, as its population neared one million, that it needed more clean water. The best source for that was the Croton River. Work on the dam began in 1837 — and with it, the county was changed forever. The project, and other reservoir systems that followed, brought new workers, mostly Irish and Italian immigrants, who settled in Westchester. However, “The reservoirs created at the end of the 19th century destroyed some villages and forced others to move — Purdys and Katonah, to name just two,” says Susan Thompson, town of North Salem historian. Indeed, as city surveyors mapped the dam and aqueduct, about 200 property owners whose land would be flooded or otherwise disrupted by the construction filed complaints in area courts. The city ended up paying them a total of $250,000 — for land worth $60,000. When the aqueduct was fully opened on this date, water flowed into the Yorkville Receiving Reservoir at today’s Central Park, witnessed by Governor William Seward and a crowd of 20,000 residents. On July 4, the water made it to the reservoir at 42nd and Fifth, where the main branch of the New York Public Library now stands. That night, about 25,000 residents visited the new reservoir, where they imbibed Croton Cocktails: Westchester water with a twist of lemon.
The New York and Harlem Railroad opens service to White Plains
“The arrival of the trains was probably the most important change that Westchester has ever seen,” says Bronxville village historian Eloise Morgan. “Small villages like North Salem’s Purdys and Croton Falls came into being and grew up around the railroad stations. To be able to move goods and people by rail changed everything!” The dairy farms were early beneficiaries, now that milk could be shipped to the city in one day. But more lasting change came as city residents ventured into the country, liked what they saw and stayed, turning a rural county into a suburb and turning farmers into commuters. This railroad, soon joined by others, like the Hudson and New Haven lines, started the era of mass transit between Westchester and New York City.
New York City swallows the Bronx
With New York City booming after the Civil War, city planners decided they needed more land and taxpayers. Thus, the land west of the Bronx River, which was then part of the borough of the Bronx in Westchester County, containing the townships of Kingsbridge, West Farms, and Morrisania, was annexed to New York City by order of the state legislature. Land loss continued on June 6, 1895, when land on the east side, comprising the town of Westchester and parts of the towns of Eastchester and Pelham, became part of the city and county of New York. In the years between 1870 and 1880, the county’s population dropped from 131,000 to 109,000.
westchester county historical society
A few friends play a round of golf
Golfers in Westchester County, and, in fact, all of America, can thank a Scotsman named John Reid and his buddies, who on this day wandered onto a Yonkers pasture and knocked a few balls around a three-hole “course” they designed. They came back again and enlisted an old apple tree to serve as their clubhouse, where they could hang their jackets, and “19th hole,” where they enjoyed their flasks of Scotch. Later that year, this auspicious adventure led to the formation of the St. Andrews Golf Club of Yonkers (John Reid, president), the oldest continuously operating golf club in the US. The USGA and the PGA of America were established in Westchester County, the first national amateur and professional Open championships were played here, and one David Mulligan named the practice that has saved hackers strokes for decades here. The sport was not played here first — that was probably in South Carolina, in the 1730s — but Westchester is universally recognized as the birthplace of modern golf in America and perhaps explains why county residents are so crazy about a good walk spoiled.
The Bronx River Parkway opens
It began as an environmental project to turn the polluted Bronx River into a park connecting Bronx Park and the Kensico reservoir. But when chief engineer Jay Downer led the addition of a roadway, it created the nation’s first public parkway designed explicitly for automobile use and became, according to the Westchester County Archives, “a pioneering example of modern motorway development. It combined beauty, safety, and efficiency by reducing the number of dangerous intersections, limiting access from surrounding streets and businesses, and surrounding motorists in a broad swath of landscaped greenery.” It also allowed easier access to parts of the county not near the railroad and influenced the development of the other north-south parkways that helped populate the county. “You say Robert Moses? I say Jay Downer first!” says Patrick Raftery, Westchester County Historical Society librarian.
Rye Playland brings family fun to Westchester
The shores of Long Island Sound were, in the early 1900s, the site of, shall we say, unsavory entertainments. The locals were not amused and petitioned the Westchester County Park Commission to offer clean amusements. It bought the land and hired Frank W. Darling, who had built parks in New Zealand, England, and France, to build and manage a park here. Playland opened with a dozen or so rides — seven of them still up and running — and became, as the park itself aptly boasts, “part of our collective childhood.” As of 2018, Standard Amusements will manage the park under its recent 30-year, $30 million agreement with the county, and up to a half-million people come to play at Playland every year.
Westchester County Airport’s first commercial flight takes off
Before World War II, small airstrips served various county communities, like Armonk and Bedford. Plans for a county airport were delayed by the Depression, but the war spurred development of the White Plains strip for air defense of New York City. The US Army Air Force base opened in 1943. In 1944, with the threat passed, the airport was returned to the county. The airport opened in February 1945, but four years passed before the first commercial flight took off. As the county grew, so did air traffic, and today, HPN — which derives from the “Plains” in White Plains — is the fourth-busiest airport in New York State.
Tappan Zee Bridge opens
Photo by Doug Kerr
The post-World War II boom brought Westchester numerous benefits — but traffic was not one of them. Existing bridges and tunnels couldn’t keep pace, and by 1950, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was considering building a new bridge across the Hudson, near Dobbs Ferry. But then-Governor Thomas E. Dewey wanted a bridge that would link the nascent New York State and New England Thruways. To do that — and to ensure tolls went into thruway coffers, not the Port Authority’s — he had to bypass the Port Authority’s jurisdiction. Political haggling finally placed the new bridge as near to New York City as possible but outside the 25-mile Port Authority radius — which happens to be the second-widest crossing point in the river, making it more expensive to span. Nevertheless, construction began in March 1952, under the design of one Emil Praeger, who had helped design floating caissons for the invasion of Normandy. Traffic first poured over the bridge on this day, though it wasn’t officially named the Tappan Zee Bridge until February 28, 1956. Designed to carry 100,000 vehicles a day, traffic has increased to approximately 138,000 daily, including a high percentage of trucks. Hence the decision to replace it, with the New NY Bridge, a $3.8 billion project (the largest bridge-construction project in New York State history), scheduled for completion in 2018.
I-287 opens to traffic
With the Tappan Zee Bridge coming, Westchester needed a road able to handle all that new traffic. Plans for a limited-access road across the county had been floated since the 1920s, and the bridge, along with the nation’s new interstate highway system, pushed those plans into reality. When finished, the Cross Westchester Expressway (I-287) created an easy link between Connecticut and the Sound Shore through Westchester and on to the rest of the state and nation. As a result, people and businesses moved in, creating the “Platinum Mile” of Fortune 500 businesses and bustling suburban communities of today and vastly increasing the wealth — and costliness — of the county.
Yonkers school segregation verdict
In what was called one of the most important civil rights cases in American history, US District Judge Leonard Sand ruled that Yonkers city officials and educators were guilty of racial segregation in housing and schools. Yonkers was required to build 100 units of affordable housing every year from 1997 through 2007. The politically unpopular move ultimately cost then-Yonkers Mayor Angelo Martinelli — the founder of Today Media, publisher of this and other regional publications — his status as the longest-tenured mayor in the city’s history. It also shed an unflattering light on a darker side of Westchester history that the county continues to grapple with today.
Regeneron kick-starts “Biochester”
On this date, Leonard Schleifer, MD, PhD, a young neurologist and professor at Cornell University Medical College, incorporated a new company: Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. In 1989, Regeneron opened its headquarters and lab in Tarrytown, under the direction of its founding scientist, George D. Yancopoulos, MD, PhD. In 2016, Forbes named Regeneron the world’s third-most innovative company in the pharmaceutical field, but it also helped innovate Westchester County as a leading biotech center, with nearly 20 percent of the state’s biotechnology workforce located here today. Though not the first biotech company in the region (that honor goes to Progenics Pharmaceuticals), Regeneron is the biggest player, and more than a dozen other companies have joined it, earning the county a new nickname: Biochester.
The Westchester welcomes its first shoppers
Westchester County was once known as the city of 1,000 stores. Sure, the county had two malls, but to be considered big league, you need a megamall. The Westchester, a $250 million, 2.5 million sq ft behemoth, fit the bill. With neighbors like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s, and with anchor stores Neiman Marcus and the first Nordstrom in Westchester, the area has been called the Rodeo Drive of the East. The mall has brought shoppers from far and wide into White Plains — but it has also hurt or killed many of those 1,000 stores, which couldn’t compete with megamalls.
Westchester tops nation in property taxes
According to the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax research group, Westchester has had the highest county property taxes in the nation since at least 2005 — and probably longer than that. The average county taxpayer currently shells out $13,000 in property taxes a year, making Westchester the poster child for runaway taxes and adding to its dubious reputation as a haven for the one-percenters. Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently gave the state’s county executives authority to figure out how to reduce local taxes, using Westchester to exemplify how, as he put it, “property taxes are breaking the back of this state. It used to be, you asked, could you afford the mortgage; now, it’s can you afford the property taxes.” In Westchester, the answer to that is, increasingly, no.
The Ritz-Carlton, Westchester changes our skyline
The tallest buildings in Westchester — and the tallest between New York City and Boston — were celebrated on this day, during a grand opening with more than 700 dignitaries and guests. The two towers, which contain a 44-story, 118-room hotel, plus The Residences at The Ritz-Carlton, transformed Three Renaissance Square into a shopping, dining, and entertainment hub that helped spur a revival of White Plains. With five-star amenities — and five-star price tags — the development forever changed the county’s skyline and brought a new level of luxury to an already luxurious area code.
Westchester County settles housing desegregation case
In 2006, the Anti-Discrimination Center (ADC) sued Westchester County, alleging the latter had received $52 million in HUD and other government funds but failed to consider and overcome race-based impediments to fair-housing choice. Three years later, the county approved a $62.5 million settlement without admitting to any wrongdoing. Andrew J. Spano, the Westchester County executive at the time, said he signed the agreement to avoid further litigation and possible penalties. “We are settling the lawsuit because we have no choice,” he told the New York Times. Westchester was required to develop at least 750 affordable-housing units in Westchester neighborhoods with very small African American and Latino populations — which critics claim the US District Court has failed to enforce. This past summer, the ADC expressed its disappointment at a judicial decision to block a court conference called to address “highly limited and inadequate relief…. This conference represented the last opportunity to get the historic housing desegregation consent decree back on track; that opportunity is now lost.” As with the Yonkers desegregation case, this has forced residents to accept that Westchester County does not mean the same thing to everyone.
Superstorm Sandy strikes
photo courtesy of nasa
The most devastating left turn in the area’s history brought Sandy — technically a superstorm but with hurricane-force power — off the Atlantic Ocean and over Brigantine, NJ. By the time its tropical rains, storm surge, and hurricane-force winds subsided, Sandy had scarred the entire eastern seaboard, becoming the second-costliest US hurricane since 1900, after Hurricane Katrina. No place was harder-hit than New York City and its suburbs, and Westchester suffered extended power outages, gas shortages, and major economic and social disruption. The governor’s office estimated the storm cost the county and its residents nearly half a billion dollars. Rye Playland’s damages totaled $12 million; part of the log-flume ride was still floating in the Sound weeks later. The Tennis Club of Hastings lost its courts and deck. Seaside Johnnies in Rye had eight feet of water in the basement, and the Pier Restaurant and Tiki Bar’s freezer was “blown to smithereens, so we had a couple thousand pounds of shrimp strewn across the sea-walk area,” co-owner John Ambrose said. Like everyone else in the county, though, Ambrose persevered: “We gathered a crew of people to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”