Tuesday, October 23, 2018
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Briarcliff Manor — The Hudson River Town Six Degrees of Separation

Hudson RiverWhen I think of my early teenage memories of Briarcliff/Scarborough, perhaps I was first intrigued by the fact that Lieutenant John Worden was born in the vicinity of Sparta and Scarborough.  I was curious then about the Civil War, and Worden was the Captain of the Union ironclad Monitor in her epic clash with the Confederate ironclad Virginia.  A little later, in my high school years, I went to an occasional party or dance in the Village of Briarcliff, where unfamiliar faces would become new friends.


Over time I have come to know many neighbors and friends who have moved from Sleepy Hollow to Briarcliff, as well as those who have relocated from Briarcliff and Scarborough to Sleepy Hollow.  Yet I have the impression that, in the minds of most Sleepy Hollowites and Briarcliffians, there is a demographic and geographic divide between the villages. From what I have observed, each of those two villages may represent a kind of cultural "non plus ultra" to the residents of the other.

Wouldn't many residents of Irvington, Sleepy Hollow and Tarrytown be surprised to learn that Briarcliff is in fact a "rivertown" too, with a firm hold on the Hudson River at Scarborough?  Our cloudiness on this point may be due to the fact that Briarcliff placed its business district and village center incongruously (to us) on the eastern side of the long north-south ridge paralleling the Hudson. This gives us the impression that Briarcliff is more on a north-south line with the "inland" villages of Ardsley and Elmsford.  But that long ridge is actually a feature shared by all four villages: Briarcliff, Sleepy Hollow, Tarrytown, and Irvington.

Briarcliff has adopted the motto "the village between two rivers," a slogan that would certainly apply to the three rivertowns to its south, as they are bracketed in a similar way by the same two rivers — the Hudson and the Sawmill.  In the case of Briarcliff and Sleepy Hollow, another motto might further apply — "a river runs through it" — the Pocantico River. Those two villages are connected by an old colonial road as well — Sleepy Hollow Road — along which Ichabod Crane's schoolhouse is said to have stood.

These are some of the geographic similarities between Briarcliff Manor and its sister villages to the south.  There are fundamental historic connections too. All four villages lie within the ancient hunting, fishing, and trapping grounds of the Weckquaesgeck Tribe at the time of Henry Hudson's 1609 voyage — and precincts of Native American peoples for thousands of years before that.  In early colonial days, they were all part of Frederick Philipse's Manor of Philipsburg, and residents of these lands shared the same place of worship and the same gristmill on the banks of the Pocantico — "the Upper Mills."

The lands of these four villages were farmed in roughly 200-acre parcels by tenant farmers who leased their farms from whichever member of the Philipse family was in charge at the given time. In 1683, they all became incorporated into the newly formed County of Westchester; then, in the early eighteenth century they were linked to Albany and New York by the Albany Post Road. In the Revolution, these villages were a district of the "Neutral Ground," a hotly contested no-man's-land which both sides raided for plunder and provisions. Circa 1840, construction of the Old Croton Aqueduct made changes across the lands of the four villages, and, about 1850, the Hudson River Railroad appeared along our banks. During various periods in the mid-to-late nineteenth century all four communities became areas for attractive homes for New York's rich and super-rich. In many ways these villages share a common lineage.

Naturally, there are also historical differences.  Most of the Village of Briarcliff Manor lies in the Township of Ossining, with only a small percentage of its lands in the Town of Mount Pleasant.  In the mid-1800s, Ossining Township was actually portioned off from the once larger Town of Mount Pleasant. Except for outlying portions of old Sparta, the area encompassed by modern Briarcliff remained overwhelmingly agrarian until the early twentieth century. 

Meanwhile the business districts of Irvington, Sleepy Hollow, and particularly Tarrytown had emerged as growing commercial, industrial, and cultural centers and were incorporated as villages roughly three decades earlier than their northern neighbor. Briarcliff appears to have skipped this phase, moving from farming to suburban residential development with a short, early twentieth century episode as a fashionable resort.

The Village of Briarcliff Manor grew largely out of circumstances managed by a single large landowner, whereas the other three villages evolved economically from an amalgam of commercial interests and transportation activities linked with the Hudson River and the Hudson River Railroad. The man responsible for extending Briarcliff's agricultural period was Walter W. Law. He was a financially successful carpet merchant who, in 1898, retired at the age of sixty-one from a partnership in New York's W. & J. Sloane Company.  Law had already begun acquiring land in 1890, to pursue a career change into millionaire dairy farmer and real estate investor. His 5000-acre farm was to become a substantial part of the modern Village of Briarcliff Manor.

At that point, Law had little experience as a farmer, but he had the capital to hire what experience he needed in order to realize his plan — to maximize the quality and output of his dairy products for the moneyed New York market.  His millionaire friend, Andrew Carnegie, who hailed from the same corner of the British Isles as Law, styled him "The Laird of Briarcliff." Carnegie, writing in 1906, was impressed by the caliber of Law's establishment; "Every known appliance or mode of treatment is at hand, and the herd is pronounced free from all and every ailment.  In cases of doubt animals are sacrificed." 

Law's secondary agricultural product was American Beauty Roses, which were grown and sold in profusion. Rose growing was big local business in that day, at least until the late 1920s when western growers began to glut the market.  Tarrytown's F.R. Pierson's flower plantation occupied all of present day Arcadian shopping center and more.

In Briarcliff, a number of civic improvements evolved due to Law's influence and financial resources. These included the Briarcliff Congregational Church, a new water supply, roads, a new train station, schools, and more.  

Walter Law's Briarcliff Farm employed virtually all of the residents surrounding Whitson's Corners, the small hamlet and Putnam Line whistle-stop that preceded the incorporated village. Law proposed incorporating the hamlet's lands as a village under New York State law in 1902.  It appears that no one in the hamlet disagreed. The riverside hamlet of Scarborough was annexed to Briarcliff in 1906. The following year, Law's dairy business was removed from Briarcliff to parts north.   By 1902, Law had already determined to go into the business of operating a luxury resort, and forthwith  Briarcliff Lodge was constructed and put into operation. The resort was popular and successful, but it began to decline in the 1920s apparently due to the impact of prohibition. Walter Law died in 1924.

The rise of affordable automobiles spurred the development of Briarcliff and its southerly neighbors of Irvington, Sleepy Hollow, and Tarrytown as suburban residential communities.  That era, as a shared experience of the rivertowns, has been in progress for about a century.

So, in conclusion, Briarcliff is by all means a "rivertown" with an engaging past and a long connection with our rivertowns to the south. It offers lovely parks and wonderful features such as the venerable Sparta Cemetery along Route 9, as well as many points of architectural and cultural interest that I hope to take up in future columns.

Henry John Steiner is the village historian of Sleepy Hollow and the managing broker of Steiner Real Estate Associates; This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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