Long before Port Chester was incorporated as a village 150 years ago, it was known, rather inelegantly, as Saw Pit.
The early inhabitants of the small village on the banks of the Byram River in eastern Westchester County became known for their boatbuilding skills. It was customary at the time to dig pits in the ground, stand the logs upright in the pits to cut and saw them for boatbuilding. Hence the name “Saw Pit,” which was first used in 1732 as a moniker for the village, according to History of the Village of Port Chester, New York, a 1968 book published by the village to celebrate its centennial.
The first English settlers arrived in what is now Port Chester from “Greenwidge” (Greenwich, CT) in 1660 and settled on “Manussing” (Manursing) Island. Three of the settlers — Thomas Studwell, Peter Disbrow, and John Coe — made a deal with Shanarockwell, a chieftain of the Sewanay Indians of the Mohegan tribe, to buy the land at a price of “eight cotes, seven shirts, and fifteen fathoms (90 feet) of wampum.”
Along with boatbuilding, other early Saw Pit occupations included farming and trading, especially moving produce by boat between Saw Pit and New York City and digging for clams and oysters in the bank of the Byram River. According to legend, the Byram River got its name from the Indians who came to “buy rum” from white settlers.
As the small village grew and thrived, some residents pushed for a name change from Saw Pit to the more impressive-sounding “Port Chester,” after Chester, in England, the birthplace of many early settlers. In 1837, the New York State Legislature approved and enacted the name change into law.
In the next step of its evolution, the Legislature granted a charter on May 14, 1868, which recognized Port Chester as a village with specified limits in the town of Rye. The new village had a population of about 3,500, six churches, one public and one parochial school, a foundry, two banks, several coal and lumberyards, a railroad station, and a few dozen stores, according to the 1968 history book.
The Eagle Iron and Stove Works foundry was one of the largest manufacturers in Port Chester in the late 1800s as it transformed from a farming community to an industrial town.
When it was incorporated, in 1868, the village was concentrated along the banks of the Byram River and Main Street from Grace Church Street to the Mill Street Bridge and dam and the lower part of Westchester Avenue, known then as Lyon’s Point. At the time, village side streets and the road to White Plains were just beginning to be developed. While there were three volunteer fire companies, the only sources of water were private wells and the unpolluted Byram River, a favorite spot for swimming, until the village established its own Water Works in 1884.
Venturing to New York City was a day’s journey, at best — the roads were rutted and carried the risk of armed bandits attacking the stagecoaches. The trip became easier and safer with the 1879 launch of the Port Chester Transportation Company and the village’s first regular steamboat service, between New York City and Port Chester three times a week with the steamers “Port Chester” and “Glenville” docked at the foot of Adee Street.
As Port Chester transformed from a farming community to an industrial town, the 1897 trolley line extension from Larchmont to Stamford, CT, brought more transportation options, particularly on Main Street, formerly a dirt road that often hosted horse racing. And in 1918, the Port Chester-White Plains Bus Line, organized by a group of taxicab operators, cut a trip into White Plains from more than an hour to just 15 minutes.
Transportation wasn’t the only thing evolving. In 1868, Port Chester’s first successful weekly finally found its footing in the Port Chester Journal, following four earlier failed weeklies. In 1888, each month the Journal printed the grades and deportment mark of every student in the Port Chester schools. The village’s first daily newspaper followed in 1899 with The Daily Item, now under Gannett ownership and known, countywide, as The Journal News.
It wasn’t until 1926 that a vaudeville playhouse theater, now the iconic Capitol Theatre, arrived. Built by Thomas Lamb, who was also responsible for the original Madison Square Garden, The Capitol Theatre remains one of Port Chester’s landmarks and a destination for popular and headliner entertainment.
The village also made its mark nationally through another source of pride, the Port Chester High School Marching Band, with appearances in the Rose Bowl in Miami and the movies Spider-Man 3 and 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street.
Eons ago, Bill Cary majored in history at Duke University. These days, he writes about local history whenever he can.