clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How The Bronx's Uneven Border With Westchester Came to Be

New, 3 comments

The jagged line divides some blocks between the two very different counties

Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries. Today, Williams explores The Bronx.

This is what Google Maps has for the northern border of the Bronx:

Surely, that jagged line, which corresponds little with the Bronx River, must be some sort of mistake, right? Turns out it’s not; more on that later.

The Bronx is named for its first European landowner, Jonas Bronck, a Swede who amassed huge tracts of land just north of Harlem in 1639. The native Lenape knew the area as Rananchqua; early settlers referred to his 500-acre holding as Bronck’s Land and to the river to its east as Bronck's River. But the river was named before the borough; as explained by historian Stephen Jenkins over a century ago: "The question is often asked: ‘Why the Borough of The Bronx?’ For the same reason that we speak of the Army of the Potomac, the valley of the Hudson, etc.—all taking their names from rivers, to which it is customary to prefix the article."

The original 21 towns of Westchester County

In 1788, the New York Legislature officially established the first 16 counties in the nascent state. What is now Bronx County was originally part of Westchester County, which was further divided into 21 townships. One of these was the manor of the powerful Morris clan, which counted among its ranks two signers of the Declaration of Independence (Lewis, Robert) and the so-called "Penman of the Constitution" (Gouverneur). When the federal government was choosing a site for a permanent national capital in 1790, Lewis Morris asked that his estate be considered. Among the perks of this location, he claimed, were health benefits ("the fever and ague is there unknown") and defensive positioning (it would be protected by "the hardy sons of New England on the one side, and the inhabitants of the populous City of New York on the other").

Congress went another direction, and the independence of this estate—named Morrisania—was not long for this world, either: it was subsumed by the Town of Westchester on February 22, 1791. John Randel Jr., who surveyed the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan that established Manhattan’s street grid, drafted a map of Morrisania in 1816.

West Farms secedes from Westchester Town

The Town of West Farms was created by an act of Legislature on May 13, 1846. It was an upgrade for a village originally founded in 1663, named for its geographic relationship with the Village of Westchester.

The Town of Morrisania resurrected

Not many people or places get a second chance at life, but the Town of Morrisania did: after experiencing explosive growth over the span of a decade, the Legislature reinstated its town status on December 7, 1855. One of the men responsible for Morrisania’s boom times was J.L. Mott, a renowned ironsmith and eponym of the Mott Haven neighborhood. (Fun fact: A urinal made by his company was used for Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 piece Fountain.)

Mott and his real estate partners purchased 200 acres from Gouverneur Morris Jr. in 1840—the first piece to fall from the family’s ancestral tract. The area would quickly grow, thanks to the railroad, immigrants from Europe, and its convenient location just across the Harlem River from Manhattan.

Yonkers becomes a city; Kingsbridge spins off

On December 19, 1872, the Town of Kingsbridge seceded from the Town of Yonkers. Earlier that year, Yonkers, a port on the Hudson and the birthplace of the Otis Elevator Company, had received state approval to become the City of Yonkers. The southern portion, formerly known as "Lower Yonkers," was left out, and a few months later, struck out on its own. The town became official in the first few months of 1873. "King’s Bridge" was the name of a crossing over the Spuyten Duyvil Creek; it first connected Westchester County with Marble Hill in Manhattan in 1693. Legend has it that the bridge was kept intact when the waterway’s original route was filled in 1914, and that it remains buried somewhere under the earth.

New York City annexes land west of the Bronx River

Kingsbridge may very well be the shortest-lived municipality in the history of the United States: it lasted barely a year. In 1873, the Legislature voted for New York City to take over the three most recent members of southern Westchester County: Kingsbridge, Morrisania, and West Farms. The city government was unhappy with the lack of progress on infrastructure projects to its north, and taking over territory was the best way for it to achieve its aims.

In these now-defunct towns, the takeover was anticipated. Morrisania had numbered its streets as a continuation of those in Manhattan; municipalities issued debt obligations, some lasting hundreds of years, that they hoped would be assumed by New York City. Some New York City residents were averse to the annexation, thinking the negatives would outweigh the benefits. One Harlem group, for example, feared the city would spend too much money paving roads in the new territory, and worried "the Croton water would be tapped, and thus tend to create a scarcity in New-York."

In 1892, the City of Mount Vernon split the Town of Eastchester into two parts; only the northern part remains Eastchester today.

New York City annexes land east of the Bronx River

The idea of consolidating the towns and cities around Manhattan into a unified New York City had been around since at least the 1870s. Although they had previously fought the concept, the Towns of Eastchester and Pelham (which used to contain Pelham Bay Park) supported the idea of shedding their southernmost portions. Conversely, the Town of Westchester, which was a more natural fit due to its proximity to Manhattan, defeated the proposal by a margin of one vote. This result was ignored; New York City assumed control on July 1, 1895. Some sources claim that City Island remained in Westchester County until 1896, when it voted to join New York City. This seems dubious, at best; the community was a part of the original Town of Pelham, established in 1788, and is far south of the cut off established by the 1895 legislative act.

Bronx County established

In 1898, New York City brought Brooklyn, Queens, and Richmond (now Staten Island) into the fold, dubbing each of them boroughs. The Bronx, too, became its own borough after consolidation, but the territory remained part of the same county machinery as Manhattan, which gave the Bronx less independence than the other boroughs.

In 1912, the Legislature created Bronx County, the state’s 62nd—and, as of this writing, most recent—county. The distinction was subject to a referendum by Bronxites that November, who voted overwhelmingly in favor; the new political entity formally came into existence on January 1, 1914.

The strange boundaries of the Bronx

There are two quirks to the Bronx’s border with neighboring jurisdictions. Most New Yorkers know that the Marble Hill section of Manhattan is geographically adjacent to the Bronx; I'll gloss over it here as it has been written about in depth on Curbed before.

In the 1890s, Marble Hill was physically separated from the rest of Manhattan by the Harlem River Ship Canal. In 1914, the original route of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek to the north was filled, thereby physically attaching Marble Hill to the mainland – and to the Bronx. But the displaced Marble Hillites wished to remain residents of Manhattan, and after decades of dispute and confusion, legislation in 1984 made that designation official.

Much more interesting is that border that so confounded me earlier: what lies east of the Bronx River. (Technically, in some spots the boundary actually crosses the river.) Several other sources show the jagged edge. In Chapter 934 of the laws of 1895, the annexed territory is described, in part, as follows:

"…which lies southerly of a straight line drawn from the point where the northerly line of the city of New York meets the center line of the Bronx river, to the middle of the channel between Hunter's and Glen islands, in Long Island sound, and all that territory lying within the incorporated limits of the village of Wakefield, which lies northerly of said line, with the inhabitants and estates therein…"

Basically, the new northern border of New York City was a straight line, except for this protrusion to include the southern part of Eastchester, the Village of Wakefield, also known as the Village of South Mount Vernon. According to one historian, the Bronx River Parkway, completed in 1925, "was designed to cause minimum disturbance to the landscape, but during construction the river’s original course was significantly straightened to reduce local flooding." There’s the issue: the river moved, but the border stayed the same.

What is still unclear is why the village of Wakefield (a.k.a. South Mount Vernon) included a panhandle at its northwestern extreme. Perhaps the lobbying efforts of Hodgman Rubber Co. and Lorrillard Refrigerator Mfg. Co., seen in the 1893 map above, were too strong to make these corporations a part of Mount Vernon proper.Even more perplexing is an adjustment of the border, effective June 6, 1896, which pushed it slightly northward east of the Hutchinson River. The reasons for this change are up for debate, but it did create an attractive strip of property to the north of Pelham Bay Park that technically falls within city limits.

In any event, we can all enjoy the strange results of these centuries of legislation and geographic revisionism, such as the fate suffered by the Mt. Vernon Supply Co., which fell just on the wrong side of the line.