The Ghost of the Westchester Northern by Vincent P. Kmetz


This curving embankment is the 14th tee. It’s the right-of-way of a railroad, the Something & Mamaroneck, which was almost finished when the Civil War stopped construction. There’s a stone culvert I’ll show you that looks like something on the Appian Way.

—Golf Course Architect Frank Duane, “Woodlands Warfare,” New York Herald-Tribune June 26, 1964

 

While Brae Burn’s Golf Course Architect Frank Duane may have had his historical facts wrong, it remains that one historical piece of charm at Brae Burn Country Club is a railroad that once cut an ancient path through the heart of its countryside. To Duane’s credit, the railroad’s ruins were put to use in forging the golf course.

One of the unique properties of a discovered artifact is that it may well have been right under one’s nose the entire time it was thought to be “lost.” Perhaps it is a worn, colonial stone mile marker that served as a resting spot for a child’s backpack by a school bus-stop. Maybe it is a grand, gray boulder, which served as the climax for action in a pivotal battle of yore, now covered in vines, under which one builds a rock garden in his backyard.

In the case of the Westchester Northern—the never-finished, never-ridden “ghost” train of a grand old travel empire—the last vestiges have been subsumed into the route of a private golf club in the affluent hamlet of Purchase, New York. As they were in 1964 when Brae Burn was built, these features are still readily seen and still readily encountered by golfers today—conspicuously in the venerable stone trestle that lies between the 15th and 17th holes and in its cousin structure between No. 17 and the driving range.

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Image on Left: The patina of a forgotten past is retained by familiar trestle works found between Brae Burn Country Club’s 15th and 17th holes. Image on Right: Captured from atop the structure, looking NNE, towards the driving range and clubhouse in the remote distance, and yields an excellent visualization of the defunct Westchester Northern’s route as it passed through Brae Burn’s property.

Farther on its NNE route, the rail path can be discerned in the uphill climb parallel to the driving range path where its route has, for fifty years, been co-opted into the familiar transit between the caddy yard and the starter’s plaza.

As the old train route exits the Brae Burn property, a raised rail bed lords over the second half of the 6th hole, dividing and screening it from first-generation member Alan Scheer’s private grounds. The massive granite bulwarks of the trestle bridge intended to carry locomotives to that stretch of raised bed are also prominent in the vista across the irrigation pond between holes 4 and 6. In these artifacts, the ghostly presence of the long-dead railroad is often felt.

Yet, nearly every Brae Burn denizen and visitor has been compelled to observe Frank Duane’s most obvious—and most ingenious—deployment of the decrepit rail route: the singular design of the teeing grounds on Brae Burn’s 5th hole. At nearly 120 yards from end to end, this unique sliver may be the single widest continuous tee in America, or the world.

To understand the older function of this striking feature in the middle of the course further permits one to “connect the dots” with the other extant ruins and envision the entire 1,200-yard breadth of this aged path as it slices through the heart of Brae Burn’s property. Once connected to the entirety of the route, perhaps the viewer will conjure images of long-forgotten days of handsome passenger cars and industrial freights chugging through the untrammeled countryside.

Of course, those fond speculations would be in error, as no passenger ever traveled on this line and no train ever ran along its tracks; for this was the Westchester Northern—a stillborn rail-transportation dream of more than 100 years ago.

It’s difficult to imagine that long-ago era, before the time of continuously paved roads, the complex network of parkways that modernity forged into suburban sprawl, as well as the infancy of the automobile, which commanded them all. Yet the Westchester Northern was one of the first reaches for the future that we understand as “today.”  Though a full airing of its byzantine record of mergers, holding companies, and property acquisitions is not apt for this venue, a few basic facts about the Westchester Northern are in order.

Conceived in the ashes of  the Panic of 1907, the Westchester Northern was to have served as a passenger line to extend the scope and service of the reborn New York, Westchester & Boston Railroad (NYW&B), known as the famed “Million Dollar a Mile” line. The “parent” NYW&B completed its primary mission—to connect the lower Bronx to the center of Westchester County at White Plains (with a later branch to Portchester)—and opened to passenger service on May 29, 1912. The northernmost terminus of the NYW&B was at the intersection of Westchester Avenue and Bloomingdale Road, later the site of B. Altman’s landmark department store and, since 1995, the location of “The Westchester”—the region’s latest opulent center of retail.

From nearly 3 million passengers in its second year (1913) to over 14 million at its zenith in 1928, the NYW&B seemed to be realizing its vision for both its proprietors and the public. But as the entire world plunged into the Great Depression beginning in the autumn of 1929, entities like the NYW&B were among the first to wither and die. By the fall of 1935, the complex knot of finance and management structures unraveled into bankruptcy, and less than two years later, in June of 1937, the NYW&B was in equity receivership, and by the end of that year, all branches on the line were closed—the 25 year run of the NYW&B was over.

Over the next five years, several attempts to revive the dormant tracks were made through various proposals and suggestions of a new public authority, but by March 1942, the property of the line was auctioned off for a paltry $423 thousand (from an original bonding approval of $600 million), and the recently engaged war effort encouraged the rapid salvage of the NYW&B’s catenary supports, bridges, viaducts, and track works. While today much of the NYW&B is completely obliterated, some peeking artifacts of station houses and viaducts can be observed in the margins of its 25 year service life.

The fate of the NYW&B’s child, Brae Burn’s “adoptee,” was to be shorter and less tactile still. That orphan, the Westchester Northern Railroad Company, was incorporated on February 9, 1910, and its purpose was to link the NYW&B’s White Plains terminus to the distant reaches of Danbury, Connecticut, and Brewster, New York, some 40 miles to the north. It would achieve this by taking an east-northeast route out of the station (at the intersection of Bloomingdale and Westchester Avenues), trundling across the present Cross Westchester Expressway (Route 287), then crossing the bottom spillway of Anderson Hill Road as it merged into Westchester Avenue (north side). From there, the route would turn directly northeast and skirt the western edge of a quaint glen once referred to as both “Deutermann Pond” and “Croker’s Lake,” now mapped as “Spring Lake.” Continuing north-northeast and starting an uphill leg, the rail path was to parallel Duxbury Road to its east, eventually nestling directly between today’s backyards on Cypress Point and Tam O’ Shanter Drives. After a short crossing of the triangular intersection of Oakmont and Pinehurst, the rail line would then enter the Brae Burn property at its southwest corner in the backyards familiar to the hooking golfers off the 15th tee. From that entry point, the path of the envisioned Westchester Northern is easily followed, in a north-northeast direction through the heart of Brae Burn’s property.

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Image on Left: Shows the entirety of the NYW&B route, which served over 120 million passengers from 1912-1937. The red circle refers to the close-up map of White Plains, New York. Image on Right: Shows detail of the northernmost terminus in White Plains, where the Westchester Northern was to have begun its reach to Brewster and Danbury, Connecticut. The red arrow points to where Brae Burn is located just 2 miles away.
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The yellow line shows the only portion of Westchester Northern Railroad (1910-1925) that was ever built; its last remaining evidence, shown by the red line, is contained entirely by the grounds of Brae Burn Country Club.

Contemporaneous accounts conflict as to the actual “start” of the Westchester Northern’s construction: one New York Times entry announced it would start on Monday, November 11, 1912; yet a later reference from that same publication places the actual start of construction in the spring of 1915, more than two and a half years later.  The latter date would seem to have more provenance as the Westchester Northern was officially consolidated with the NYW&B on June 8 of that year, and the interim would likely have been filled by the enormous real estate and planning machinations necessary to secure the rail path through the heart of Westchester County.

Until this document was prepared, rail historians openly speculated as to whether any portion of the Westchester Northern Railroad was ever built. There were credible reasons for this inability to document its physical evidence. The primary of these is that the entire Westchester Northern project was dead by 1925—abandoned in the maelstrom of competing projects and priorities undertaken by the governing NYW&B in that era, as well as the nascent focus on automobile travel as the emerging means to develop the northern suburbs.

Thus, the stillborn child can only be seen in a brief, fifteen-year life of legal documents, proposed budgets, local property records, and scant press clippings centering on its organization—not its actual construction. Another reason is that, over the years—with such a short “paper” life and such a quick, ignominious end to the parent NYW&B (by 1937)—the real life of community development in West Harrison and North White Plains necessarily commanded the focus and altered the surrounding landscape to hide meaningful remnants of what was only a decade-long “beginning” to the planned line. The precious harvest of scrap metals for the war effort further scavenged what development did not.

Perhaps the most important cause of historical speculation over the Western Northern’s actual construction was that—until Lowell Schulman purchased it and Frank Duane routed the property for golf—the area was a tangled mass of forest, ledges, and rock, where few tread in the years between 1925 and 1963. It was, by that era’s standards, an ignored terrain of little interest or value, and thus, the Northern’s infant remnants were all but obliterated to an investigating eye. Of course, once Purchase Hills-Brae Burn and the surrounding neighborhoods were constructed, the tactile evidence of the Westchester Northern became the private province of those occupants, further obscuring the ruins from any volume of public scrutiny.

Consequently, only now is the brief history of the Westchester Northern Railroad coming to light. Indeed, this railroad was built, and Brae Burn has been the unwitting beneficiary and steward of this minute piece of history.

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FINAL_Fairway_Page7Image on Top: The path (in yellow) of the Westchester Northern uniquely utilized as the one-of-a-kind teeing grounds for Brae Burn’s par 3, 5th hole as it trundles through the very center of the Purchase, New York club’s exclusive grounds. At 118 yards from edge to edge, perhaps the single widest breadth of any designed golf tee in the world, this 5th tee—in Frank Duane’s since-reversed original design, the 14th—has been a magnetic, central vista for Brae Burn’s 50 years of existence and the most evolved visual evidence of the Westchester Northern Railroad’s stillborn history. At the same time in an architectural sense, it gives inaugural evidence of Duane’s penchant to find ingenious ways to build flexibility and visual interest into a course that never gets old for members, while still vexing the elite player. Image on Bottom: Ground level view.

 

OTHER ITEMS REGARDING THE WESTCHESTER NORTHERN

Though Brae Burn retains the only physical evidence of the Westchester Northern, the labyrinth network of real estate purchases and “rights-of-way” acquired for its intended path still appear on several tax and property maps throughout northern Westchester to this day. One striking, contemporary example of the line’s northeasterly route on a current map is where the “Northern” was to have coursed through nearby Tamarack Country Club at its southeast property corner, clipping its current 10th green and 11th tee box. What entity maintains the property/easement rights to this sliver of valuable Greenwich real estate is anyone’s guess, but it is still clearly demarcated, as shown on the maps.

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Image on Left: The image on the left is produced from a 1938 Franklin Survey Co. (Philadelphia) map of the northwestern corner of Greenwich, Connecticut. The Westchester Northern’s “right of way” for it rail path (clipping Tamarack Country Club) is highlighted in yellow. Image on Right: A contemporary image grafted from Google Maps (2010), which shows a unique parcel of that “right of way” (in red) still apportioned, though its ownership is unclear.

 

As in the construction of Brae Burn, the vestiges of the stillborn Westchester Northern Railroad played a small part in the original development of I-684. After contentious approvals for the invaluable roadway were finally secured in December of 1964 and property acquisitions (including developer Lowell Schulman’s unsold portion of the Purchase Hills-Brae Burn property) were made throughout 1965, work was ready to begin in earnest in 1966. From there, local transportation historian Steve Anderson makes mention of the role the Westchester Northern was to engage in that first segment construction (completed and opened on October 29, 1968) in his excellent website nycroads.com:

Engineers already had a head start: part of the route was built on an old right-of-way acquired by the Westchester Northern railroad, an extension of the New York, Westchester and Boston Railroad for a Danbury extension that was graded, but abandoned in 1925.

In addition to the decrepit, ornamental nature of its remains and their deployment within course grounds, the appearance of this “ghost” railroad is yet another reminder that the history of Brae Burn’s creation dovetails with the modern history of Westchester itself—how the old gives way to the new and how the new conglomerates the old into the present and the future.

For links to further reading on the New York, Westchester & Boston Railway, go to http://nywbry.com/history.php.

*The Ghost of the Westchester Northern is an adapted chapter of Kmetz’s commissioned book Brae Burn Country Club – The First 50 Years. 

 

About the Author

A writer and educator, Vincent P. (“Vinnie”) Kmetz is an MFA graduate of Western Connecticut State University who has worked in golf services for thirty years. Kmetz’s writing interests are eclectic and within multi-genres, ranging from poetry to sports to music to the pedagogy of writing. In the future, he hopes to produce a second poetry collection, a collage-book of memoir, and short stories and a comic screenplay on his lifetime spent associated with the sport of golf. He does not like long walks on the beach unless the hotel is at the midpoint of such a walk or a vehicle is waiting to return him at its end.

 



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