TOWN HISTORY
 
Historian: Greg Ricci
Phone & Fax: 914-948-2550
Email:
harrisonhistoricalsociety@gmail.com

HARRISON LEGENDS AND FACTS

The Beginnings of Harrison's Purchase

  One popular legend has it that in 1695, an Indian chief named Pathungo sold John Harrison as much land as he could cover in a day on horseback. Not wanting to get his horse's feet wet, he marked the boundaries for a future landlocked Harrison, which is the only community close to Long Island Sound without access to the water. Another legend has it that the uneven boundaries of the town were paced out by a drunken Indian while selling it to a colonist for a handful of beads, bright cloth and "white man's wampum."

It is possible that the land was sold more than once, as Indians did not understand sales contracts, that under white man's law, once he had bought the land, it was his. They thought they were merely selling the white man the right to live, hunt, and farm on the land.

According to Charles Dawson, Harrison's first town historian, the true story began with the Siwanoy Indians who sold land to Peter Disbrow in 1662 and to John Budd in 1666, and again in 1695 to John Harrison. Unfortunately for Mr. Disbrow and Mr. Budd, neither had filed claims with the provincial government of New York. John Harrison, however, did file, and when his claim was disputed, it was upheld. Eventually, he and four others who were involved with him in the purchase, known as "Harrison's Purchase," sold the land, it is thought, to the first Harrison settlers who appeared around 1724.

The new owners were Quakers who settled in Purchase where they built their first Meeting House in 1727. This was later destroyed by fire, but a replica was erected on the same foundation, also to be destroyed by fire on January 1, 1973. The Friends now meet in another building near the site, which has been cleared. An old newspaper was found in the Harrison Public Library dated Saturday, April 29, 1911. It is a Souvenir Edition of the Harrison Observer, edited by the Ladies of the Presbyterian Church. And from it comes this piece about the early days of Purchase:

"Nearly everyone has heard of Haviland China, yet very few know that the first Haviland China was made in Harrison.

"A Frenchman by the name of Havreland, driven from France by religious troubles, crossed the Atlantic and settled at Flushing, Long Island. It was but a step for him to cross the Long Island Sound and make Purchase his home.

"Here he found a fair quality of felspar, one of the necessities in the manufacture of china. Probably for the sake of euphony, Mr. Havreland had changed his name to Haviland, and in Purchase he made and sold many Haviland China dishes.

"The religious troubles of France having ended, Mr. Haviland returned to France, leaving his sons in America. In his old home there was a better quality of felspar than America had yet produced. As a result, the famous Haviland China factory was established there, which now employs 7,000 people."

Major General Thomas Thomas, a Revolutionary patriot, lived in Purchase. On November 13, 1778, his house was surrendered to the British. He was captured and taken to Long Island, but escaped. He was Harrison's first Supervisor, and the Thomas estate comprised of all the land where the State University and Pepsico are now located. The main house was on what is now Lincoln Avenue, north of Anderson Hill Road, and the Thomas family lived there until the land was sold and subdivided in 1850. Major General Thomas died in 1824 and was buried in the Thomas cemetery behind the Neuberger Museum on the State University campus. The state of New York erected a handsome monolith over his grave. The inscription in part reads: "He assisted in laying foundations of those institutions that are intended to perpetuate the Republic."

Judge John Thomas, his father, read the Declaration of Independence from the steps of the Courthouse in White Plains on July 11, 1776.

The old records of meetings held in Harrison are stored in the Municipal Building on Heineman Place and date back to April 5, 1774. On that day, the Freeholders and inhabitants of Harrison's' precinct met to elect their officials: as supervisor, Major General Thomas Thomas; as town clerk, William Miller, as constable and collector, W. Dusinbury; as assessors, Stephan Fields and Job Haddon Jr.: as pounder, Thomas Park; as fence and damage viewers, Samuel Haviland and Thomas Park; and a highway master for each road - seven in all. This was the first annual meeting in the town of Harrison.

Although the town of Harrison had a supervisor and master of the roads, fences and pound, a municipal form of government was not established until the middle of the 1800's. During much of this intervening period, most court actions, legal transfers of land, and other similar matters were taken care of by the town of Rye, and a close relationship existed between the two.

REVOLUTIONARY TIMES

As in all parts of the colonies in pre-revolutionary days, Harrison had its share of Loyalists and Patriots, and although the rural areas were not as much affected as the towns by the tax imposed by England, they did suffer embargoes on scarce goods as the war progressed. So in 1775, when the Continental Congress called for four regiments from New York, one company was raised from Harrison and two from Rye, as part of the Second Battalion of Westchester County, performing excellent service in the war.

Harrison also had its share of battles.

There is a little-known story of a two-day skirmish that took place between the Colonists and the Redcoats at the Horton Grist Mill, off Lake Street. It is recounted in a diary kept by a Colonial soldier, one Isaac Bates. The diary is stored in the Shaker Museum in North Chatham, New York and related to the engagement that took place when British soldiers attempted to raid George Washington's supplies stored in the Mill. Bates was a fifer in charge of ammunition and attached to the Flying Corps, and tells that during the battle, Mr. Horton, owner of the Mill, was felled by a cannon shot, but Mrs. Horton continued to fire cannon shots until her husband recovered sufficiently to help man the gun. 

The hills and dales of historic West Harrison were covered with hiding places suitable for the storage of ammunition which Colonial soldiers ferried by boat up the Hudson River to Tarrytown and across the county by ox cart. People have found buttons, bullets and cannonballs on these sites. Some evidence of the Mill foundations may still be seen at the south end of St. Mary's Lake where Lake Street crosses over the White Plains City Line.

It was during October 1776 that one of the final engagements of the Battle of White Plains took place on Merritt's Hill bordering on Lake Street in West Harrison, re-enacted for many years by the Battle of White Plains Monument Committee, when charges and counter-charges are made between Colonial and British troops, authentically costumed and armed for combat. The blast of cannon, popping of muskets and acrid odor are often part of the scene.

Directly across Lake Street from the encounter is the site of the Field Tavern, an important stop for stagecoaches traveling between New York and Connecticut. Today, one can still follow the old stagecoach route from White Plains, through Harrison, Armonk, Bedford Village and eventually to Danbury Connecticut.

On Old Lake Street in West Harrison, there is a milestone which marked this old stagecoach route. At the base is a bronze marker which reads "Preserved by Benjamin I. Taylor, Supervisor, Town of Harrison, July 4th 1926." Unfortunately the marker is in a state of deterioration and should be covered and enclosed. There are only a few known such markers in the Country.

THE OLD MILL

Harrison was originally a farming community, and people worked in weaving shops, saw mills or grist mills. One such relic of the past is unique to Harrison. Built circa 1700 by a Mr. Griffin, it is the only pre-Revolutionary grist mill in Westchester, and stands on the banks of the Mamaroneck River at West Street, adjacent to the Hutchinson River Parkway between Mamaroneck and Harrison, on a site steeped in Indian legend.

Known as the Old Mill Farm, at one time it knew the bustle and clamor of a busy commercial enterprise as farmers from the area brought their wheat and corn to be ground into flour and meal. Before the coming of the white man, the site was the home of the Mamaro tribe. Legend claimed that a Great White Deer visited the falls in the river at a certain time of the year when the moon was full, bringing good fortune and success to the lucky Indian who saw it and Indians came from as far away as the Great Lakes in hope of seeing it.

Although the Indians departed after the arrival of the white man, they continued to seek out the Great White Deer, the last one being called "Indian Dan" who faithfully returned once a year for several months from 1805 to 1866. No one knew where he came from or where he went, but the owners of the mill always made him feel welcome. Did he see the Great White Deer? It is not recorded, and we do not know.

SILVER LAKE

In the early 1700's, most of West Harrison, then known as Silver Lake, was owned by Daniel Merritt, who sold out to John Horton (of Horton's Grist Mill) in 1732. The following century, the Horton family sold property to a Mr. Underhill in 1833, who again sold to a Mr. Gainsborg in the 1890's. Mr. Gainsborg developed early West Harrison into a resort area, and many old-timers remember that before World War II, West Harrison had a hotel, a casino and an internationally known ski jump.  

A large, beautiful map hanging in the West Harrison Branch of the Bank of New York (it used to be the County Trust), shows many houses around Silver Lake (then known as St. Mary's Lake) which were later moved to other sites in West Harrison. Why? Presumably to leave a clean waterfront for the parkland that was sold by Harrison to the county in 1926. As for the hotel and casino, Charles Dawson was not sure if they moved or burned down.

As for other landmarks that have disappeared such as the ice house which divided West Harrison and Purchase near Anderson Hill Road, owned by the Rubel Ice Company on Croker's Pond, it was abandoned when the ice box bowed to the supremacy of the refrigerator, and again, Charles Dawson was not sure when.

Slavery also existed in early Harrison. An old New York newspaper advertisement dated 6th August, 1772 (sic) reads:

"Runaway from Nathan Field of Harrison's Purchase in the Township of Rye, a negro called "Plato." Twenty shillings reward." The slaves were freed by the Quakers between 1773 and 1783 and were given land to farm in the Stony Hill area in West Harrison by one of the friends, Frederick Stephens. An old church and a cemetery existed there. 

DOWNTOWN HARRISON

While Harrison's Purchase and Silver Lake saw early settlement, Harrison's downtown section did not develop until after the coming of the railroad in 1848.

  In the beginning, people had to flag down the train to get aboard, be after the station was built in 1870 and it became more comfortable to commute, the opening of the railroad in this fashion dramatically changed the character and center of activity in Harrison. Although there were farms in the southern end of town, wealthy business people from New York City bought the land for their country homes and many large estates were developed.

The station was actually erected and given to the town by William Matthews, who owned property in the area. He also built a large hotel called the Mansion House at the corner of Halstead and Purdy Avenue, as the railroad would not permit a Station House in town unless there was a hotel to accommodate passengers. The Mansion House, later known as the Harrison Hotel, is now the location of the Dime Savings Bank. 

One lovely residential area that was established was on Sunnyridge Farm, purchased in 1853 by Josiah Macy, a retired sea captain, whose home stood on North Street from which elevation he claimed he could see all the way to the Sound. "...When evening comes, I have the cheerful view of the lights from five lighthouses which are placed there to guide the mariner on his way...Since I left business in New York, I have passed most of my time on my farm; the quiet rural retirement has been very congenial to my feelings; it is what I often thought of in years that are gone..."

This beautiful 165 acre estate was later sub-divided and sold and is now the Sunnyridge section we know today with its many attractive streets and homes.

Harrison was developing in another way as well for the railroad brought in many Italian immigrants who bought plots to farm in Brentwood and Silver Lake. Today their descendants are part of the strength of our diverse community, as gradually there evolved the distinctive neighborhoods of Harrison and West Harrison that make up our unique town/village.

In the first U.S. Census Report of the year 1790, the Township of Harrison was listed as having a population of 1,156, including 54 slaves. In 1880, it had increased to only 1,494.

 

The town has retained its rural character to a greater degree than some of the other communities within a comparable distance from New York.

On March 7, 1788, New York passed legislation which divided its counties into towns numbering more than 100. "...and that all that part of said County of Westchester called and known by the name of Harrison's Purchase, shall be and hereby is erected into a town, by the name of Harrison."

A real estate brochure of 1906 stated "Harrison is a good place to live. There are over 50 trains daily between Harrison and New York City with a commutation of 10 cents a trip." It was known as the New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad. Since 1927, when it became the New Haven Line, it has changed little, and is said to have been more efficient then!

Access by road improved when the Hutchinson River Parkway reached Harrison in 1929. Few know that 60 years ago, another parkway was planned which would extend from White Plains to Port Chester along the present day route of Westchester Avenue. Land was sold and many houses were built by enthusiastic developers, but the plan was never completed. Today, Parkway Knolls extends from Westchester Avenue north two blocks to Parkview Avenue, and between Underhill Avenue and Croker's Pond, also known as Spring Lake. 

The Harrison Historical Society has its home in West Harrison on the corner of Lake Street and Park Lane in the Charles Dawson History Center. The site is the location of a one room school house known as District No. 5 which was originally established further up Park Lane in 1817.

Taken from "Harrison Highlights and Anecdotes" Published by the Charles Dawson History Center, 1989.

Heritage Trail Map

1 Heineman Place  Harrison, New York 10528 (914) 670-3000