Highbrook Bridge Significance


by Dr. Roger Wines (copyright 2011)

The Highbrook Avenue Bridge is historically significant in several areas of interest:

ENGINEERING. The bridge is an example of early 20th century cast concrete arch bridge technology. The single arch structure, after a century. is sound, though in need of some repair and restoration of its concrete surfaces. Construction photographs of the bridge from 1910 reveal details of the arch and abutments, as well as methods of work. The Highbrook Avenue Bridge informs us about early twentieth century building technology.

Most railroad bridges over local roads are simple steel girder spans. Particular care was exercised to make the Highbrook Avenue Bridge into an ornamental as well as useful structure, and it was part of the architectural program of the railroad. Although rails and overhead catenary were removed in 1942 after the closing of the railroad, the bridge, in an attractive, publicly accessible location, continues as a local landmark.

Older residents of the neighborhood recall the abandoned station platforms and roadbed of the Storer Avenue NYW&B station, which are still on the eastern portion of the site, buried beneath a lawn and twenty feet of landfill, where the surviving right of way ends at the Pelham village border. The street level station structure has been demolished, and is now part of a New Rochelle resident’s back yard.

ARCHITECTURE. The bridge, like the stations, signal towers, maintenance and service structures of the railroad, was designed by the noted architectural firm of Reed & Stem, concurrently with their work on New York’s Grand Central Terminal. Alfred Fellheimer, who headed the design committee for Grand Central, was the principal architect for the firm on the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway. Subsequently he formed with Stuard Wagner the firm of Fellheimer & Wagner, which designed major United States railroad stations in communities such as Utica, Buffalo and Cincinatti. He is considered a prominent American architect of the century, not only for his railroad work, but for public housing, office buildings, the Beekman Theatre in Manhattan, the service structures on the New Jersey Turnpike, and major industrial commissions.

Designs for many of the N.Y.W.&B’s structures were published in 1910. Construction of the embankment through Pelham was in progress during 1910; the bridge was essentially cast by December 31, 1910, and finished in 1911, along with adjacent stations at Fifth Avenue Pelham, and Storer Avenue on the New Rochelle-Pelham border.

Fellheimer described his structures for that portion of the line in 1912 as “modified Mission”, and they have a generally Mediterranean look, with simple concrete stucco walls, arched windows, some like Third Street, Mount Vernon or Fifth Street, Pelham, with red Spanish tile roofs. Describing his work on the Westchester in 1952 to Herbert Harwood, the architect said he was surprised, upon getting the job, that the railroad wanted to spend so much money on structures for a new and untried line. He was told that it was Mr. Morgan’s specific instruction that they should be beautiful, and that cost was secondary. “We spent money like drunken sailors,” he concluded.

The bridge was built at the same time as the surrounding suburban development of Pelhamwood, with its large, attractive houses, and it complemented the upscale community. The southern façade, in particular, faces on a large plaza created by the intersection of several streets, and still lends an air of elegance, rather than utility, to the neighborhood. Most of the Westchester’s bridges were removed for scrap during World War II, or to facilitate street widening in the postwar years. Highbrook Avenue is a worthy survivor, and a representative piece of railroad architecture of the early 20th century.

Two of Fellheimer’s other NYW&B structures, designed at the same time as the Bridge, are listed on the National Register. They are the New York Westchester and Boston Railroad Administration Building, NRHP 80002587, and Morris Park Station NHRP 05000677, both in Bronx County.

LOCAL The railroad bridge was built in the new development of Pelhamwood, which covered parts of North Pelham

and New Rochelle. The developer, Clifford B. Harmon was a major figure in Westchester County real estate and construction in the early 20th century – he was also responsible for the village of Croton-Harmon, and other
projects. Harmon was able to advertise that his new community included stations on two railroads – the New York, Westchester & Boston station on Storer Avenue, and the New York, New Haven and Hartford station in Pelham.

A comparison of real estate atlases for 1910 and 1930 graphically illustrates the growth caused by the railroads, especially in Pelhamwood and the surrounding village of North Pelham. What had been mostly empty lots and woodland was transformed into a dense network of homes. The population of North Pelham grew from 1287 in 1910 to 5082 in 1940. Workers also commuted to the nearby Sanborn Map Factory . The Westchester not only provided access to the Bronx, with connecting subway and elevated lines into Manhattan for commuters, but also opportunity for Pelham residents to shop in the adjacent cities of Mount Vernon and New Rochelle, contributing to these cities’ commercial activity.

REGIONAL The New York, Westchester and Boston Railway actively served many communities both in the Bronx, (which in 1912 was more a collection of villages that a completely urban landscape), and in Westchester County, where it ran from Mount Vernon to White Plains and to Portchester. About 112 trains a day ran over the Highbrook Avenue Bridge. Many other communites were affected by the railway in the same way as Pelham. The NYW&B also acquired trolley lines and initiated bus routes in Westchester County, many of which survive today.

Although the Depression of the thirties forced the NYW&B to close in 1937, it was missed in the postwar period when its erstwhile routes passed through growing towns and cities. The unsuccessful effort to save the Westchester as a railroad operated by a public authority (1938-1941) foreshadowed the political decisions of the 1960’s to save commuter bus and railroad lines in Westchester under auspices of the County and the Metropolitan Transport Authority.. The bridge, as an integral surviving part of the NYW&B, is a monument to all that activity.

NATIONAL The Highbrook Avenue Bridge is also a reminder of major national economic events and personalities. The decision to acquire and build the Westchester line was made personally by J. P. Morgan, who chaired the board of the NYNH&H and the NYW&B. Morgan also made the decision to invest huge sums of money in the line, to provide the best state of the art engineering, and create stations and buildings of remarkable aesthetic quality. The Highbrook Avenue Bridge is one of the surviving Westchester structures. The NYW&B, an all-electric road, was arguably the finest and most modern railroad in America when completed in 1912.

The NYW&B was also drawn into the financial maneuvers in which Morgan engaged while single handedly saving the United States economy in the Panic of 1907. Oakley Thorne, head of the Trust Company of America, had formed the Millbrook Company to buy up shares and franchises of the New York Westchester and Boston and the New York and Portchester railroads, in order to transfer them to the New Haven Railroad. In 1907, Thorne’s bank was saved from failure by Morgan, and this proved to be the turning point for the financial panic. It is strongly believed that the subsequent purchase of Thorne’s Millbrook interests by the New Haven Railroad was part of Morgan’s efforts to bolster Thorne’s financial position.

Some other major figures associated with the Westchester included Charles Evan Hughes, sometime counsel for the NYW&B, later Governor of New York, nearly President of the United States in 1916, and Chief Justice of the United States. There was William Rockefeller, Morgan’s close associate on the Board of the New Haven, who was part of the committee which decided to acquire the Westchester. Mention has already been made of nationally recognized architects Charles Reed, Allen Stem and Alfred Fellheimer. Charles S. Mellen. President of the New Haven Railroad, at first opposed, and later helped to build the line. He envisaged the Westchester as a way of reducing the New Haven’s unprofitable commuter business, by diverting it to the NYW&B.

Mellen’s efforts to expand and modernize the New Haven Railroad from 1903 to 1913 were successful, but the high cost drove the New Haven and its subsidiary NYW&B into financial crisis. After J. P. Morgan’s death in 1913, Mellen had to resign, and state and federal investigators descended upon the railroad.. Nationally publicized hearings by the Interstate Commerce Committee in 1914 brought out information about the extravagant cost of the Westchester and the questionable political and financial maneuvers which led to its creation. The ensuing scandals influenced the Wilson administration’s expansion of federal regulatory controls over railroad and financial companies.

The Highbrook Avenue Bridge stands as a landmark of engineering, architectural and local community history. As an integral surviving part of the New York Westchester and Boston Railway, it is also a reminder of significant regional and national events.

Notice: This material is copyrighted by Dr. Roger Wines, February 2011