James A. Bailey

Today, the only clear reminders to those who live in Westchester of the life of Clifford Harmon are a few street names in White Plains, Larchmont and Pelham, and the Metro North train station, Croton-Harmon. In 1932, when the Hudson Line was being electrified, Harmon sold property on the neck of Croton Point to the railroad company. His agreement with the railroad regarding the sale stipulated that the station always be called Croton-Harmon, and that every train, express as well as local, stop at the Croton-Harmon station. Almost 80 years later, this agreement still stands.

Clifford Harmon

Clifford Harmon during World War I. Photo courtesy of Croton Historical Society.

Despite not being well-known today, Clifford B. Harmon was almost constantly in the news in the early 20th century. He is important to Westchester as well as other parts of the United States for his work as a residential real estate developer. His passion, however, was in exploring flight. Harmon, along with the Wright brothers, was one of America's earliest aviation pioneers.

Early Life

Harmon was born in Urbana, Ohio, and when it was time for him to enter the work force, he joined the family real estate business, Wood, Harmon & Company. From the beginning the company was devoted to building suburban communities.

In 1905 Harmon married Louise Adele Benedict, daughter of Commodore Elias Cornelius Benedict, a Wall Street banker, broker and noted yachtsman who was part of the power elite of the day. However, the marriage must not have been satisfying to either party. Harmon left for war in 1916, never to return to the United States, and his wife filed for divorce in 1924. The case was not settled until 1929, and only after Harmon reimbursed her for bills she had paid relating to a development project of his in Greenwich, CT.

Land Developments in Westchester

Harmon was responsible for 256 subdivisions in 26 different cities in the United States during the early 20th century. Four of these developments were in Westchester: Larchmont Woods, Larchmont Gardens, and Pelhamwood, plus a development in the Croton area that was originally called Harmon-on-Hudson.

One of his early Westchester developments was Larchmont Gardens, a 145-acre property along the Sheldrake River. The plans for Larchmont Gardens specified the style of the buildings to be erected (detached bungalow-style houses), tennis courts, and a waterfall from the Sheldrake that spilled into a man-made lake with a clubhouse overlooking the lake. Buying property in the development made one eligible for membership in the club, providing, of course, you were male.

Duck Pond in Larchmont Gardens

The Duck Pond in Larchmont Gardens. Courtesy of the Larchmont Historical Society.

The advent of train travel to the suburbs was key to people being able to work in New York City and live outside the city. It was also key to being able to see these houses. Harmon's early ads for the area promised free train tickets to anyone who wanted to come up and look at the properties. (The house in Larchmont now used as Girl Scout House was the original train station for Larchmont Gardens.) By 1913 Harmon had sold most of the lots; bungalow prices ranged from $5,000-$8,000. In 1924 the clubhouse was converted to a private home. The waterfall and lake (now referred to as the Duck Pond) still exist and were recently dredged. In 2010 the home was featured in the Wall Street Journal for its exceptional restoration.

Croton

Harmon loved the bucolic beauty of Croton and wanted to develop a country retreat for artists, writers, musicians and dancers. In 1906 he purchased about 500 acres in the area (most of the land had originally belonged to the Van Cortlandt family). One of the great opera singers of the 19th century, Madame Lillian Nordica, shared Harmon's vision for the community, and she purchased 60 acres and built a residence on her estate there. Harmon built a large playhouse for Nordica on the edge of the Croton River. He also built a tea house that he called the Nikko Inn. The inn became a favorite retreat for many celebrities of the day, including film stars Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. The inn was rustic yet atmospheric with colorful Japanese lanterns decorating the screened porch and gondolas with gondoliers to take people up and down the Croton River.

Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy patron of the arts, spent time in Croton, and she attracted friends like Max Eastman and John Reed. The area soon became popular to people who were active in the New Thought movement, which emphasized spiritualism and healing.

The area got a boost when Isadora Duncan decided to return to the United States at the outbreak of World War I, and she and some of her students moved up to the Croton area. Duncan had met Clifford Harmon on the ship that brought both of them from Europe to America. Duncan was traveling in steerage, since she was bringing with her several refugees without passports. When Harmon, who was traveling first class, discovered that Isadora Duncan was in steerage, he saw to it that she was allowed to be on the deck during the day.

Harmon's Devotion to Flight

Clifford Harmon in a biplane

Clifford Harmon in a biplane. Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The fortune Harmon made in real estate permitted him to fund his passion—aviation. He started experimenting as a balloonist in 1908, and he established an altitude record of 15,997 feet in 1909, which was a record that remained unbroken until 1923.

An airfield in Mineola, New York, was a hang-out for many of America's early pilots, including the Wright brothers, and Harmon bought a Farnam biplane and brought it to Mineola. He was the sixth person to receive a pilot's license in the United States, and the first to fly over Long Island Sound. He shared honors with Claude Graham-White for the first round-trip by air over the English Channel. In a record for the Mineola field, Harmon went up in a Curtis biplane and remained aloft for two hours and three minutes, descending only because he had run out of fuel.

Aviators in the early days were known to be unusually brave, as they were taking far more risks than pilots do today. In 1911 Harmon's plane fell 150 feet; the aircraft was destroyed, but Harmon was saved because the force of the fall was broken by the branches of a tree.

In 1910 he expressed commitment to air power as a military resource and executed bombing demonstrations. During World War II, however, as he observed first-hand the forcefulness of the bombing in France, he came to regret his earlier support of air power as a military weapon.

The War Years

In 1916 Harmon committed to join the war effort, and he served as a major (eventually a colonel) in the aviation division of the Signal Corps. He trained other pilots and also encouraged more research and development of ways to improve flying.

When World War I ended and there was discussion about disarmament, Harmon introduced the idea of an international air force. While the idea itself was rejected, Harmon had succeeded in pushing aeronautics to the fore.

He founded the International League of Aviators (Ligue Internationale des Aviateurs) and the organization began sponsoring awards for outstanding achievements; the trophies became known as the Harmon Trophies. In his will Harmon provided funding to continue the program. Today, a single Harmon trophy, the Aeronaut Trophy, is presented annually by the National Aeronautic Association.

Harmon spent the remainder of his life in France, and was often part of the reception committee as famous fliers came through Paris. In the late 1930s, Harmon had a stroke while he was living in Cannes. The stroke left him severely diminished, and at the onset of World War II, he was unable to leave when others fled Cannes because of the bombing. He had to remain at the Hotel Martinez with a nurse to care for him. The first person to visit him when the war finally ended was a journalist, who reported that Harmon's first words to him were, "Where is Lindbergh?" (Lindbergh was flying missions in the Pacific Theater.)

Harmon died in Cannes in June 1945.

Prospective Buyers at Croton-Harmon railroad station

Prospective buyers of Clifford B Harmon's homes at the Croton-Harmon railraod station, circa 1905.