Thomas Clapp Cornell, after whom a Yonkers public school is named, came to Yonkers as a young man of 28 in the summer of 1847.
At that time, as Cornell himself wrote almost 50 years later,
“[T]here was no Warburton Avenue … nor any Dock Street, nor any Hudson River Railroad, nor even any Yonkers as we now know Yonkers. There was but a little rural hamlet of perhaps five hundred people. There were hardly half a dozen streets or crossroads in the whole settlement.”
A civil engineer, Thomas Cornell was employed at the time by the Hudson River Railroad Company and was largely responsible for the construction of the railroad line from Spuyten Duyvil to Dobbs Ferry. The railroad company’s local office—in which he worked from August 1847 until the completion of his ten miles of track in 1850—was located in a rented room in Philipse Manor Hall, which was then a private home owned by Lemuel W. Wells. Cornell moved in as a boarder at that time and took a single room directly over his first-floor office. Almost half a century later, he remembered how cold “that elegant room” was during his tenancy of it in the winter of 1849–1850.
Born in Flushing, Long Island, on January 7, 1819, Thomas Cornell had little formal schooling.
When he was but a child, the family moved to a farm in the vicinity of Rochester, and it is there that his father Silas is said to have operated a little school during the winter months. This school was, as the Yonkers Herald wrote in an item about Thomas Cornell many years later, “the only school … Thomas ever attended,” adding that the “aggregate” of Thomas’s schooling “did not exceed three years and was ended before he was twelve years old.” Despite the arduous farm work that he took on from an early age, however, the Herald assures us that Thomas “kept up his studies and was often seen spending an hour or two before breakfast, by lamplight studying Latin, Greek or mathematics.”
When Silas Cornell became surveyor of the Rochester area in 1836, Thomas became his assistant. Within four years, by the time he was 21, Thomas was working for New York State on a project to enlarge the Erie Canal.
In 1846, after a few years working as an engineer for the Canadian government, Thomas went to Europe. In Lyons, France, he was received into the Catholic Church.
Returning to the States, Thomas took the job with the railroad and shortly afterwards first set eyes on Yonkers. From that day in August 1847, until December 29, 1894, when he died at the age of 75 in his home on Highland Place, Thomas Cornell would prove to be one of the greatest benefactors Yonkers has ever known.
There are few maps of Yonkers dating from the last half of the 19th century. But there are probably even fewer which do not bear the name of Thomas Cornell. As the Yonkers Statesman pointed out at the time of his death, “He did almost all the surveying and engineering of Yonkers for many years, with occasional work as architect.”
In June 1852, Yonkers got its first newspaper, a four-page weekly called The Yonkers Herald. It was Thomas Cornell who had convinced reporter Thomas Towndrow to begin publishing a newspaper here.
Within a few years, Towndrow’s associate Thomas Smith became the editor, and Smith’s anti-abolitionist politics were anathema to Cornell (a Republican virtually from the founding of the party in 1856). Thomas Cornell then induced Peekskill’s Matthew F. Rowe to relocate to Yonkers and to start a rival newspaper here. Rowe’s The Examiner began publication in 1856.
Thomas Cornell was also involved in establishing several Yonkers businesses, including the Yonkers Gas Light Company, the Bank of Yonkers, the Yonkers Savings Bank, and the Yonkers and New York Fire Insurance Company. His genealogical and historical interests led him to take an active role in the Westchester County Historical Society, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, and the Yonkers Historical and Library Association.
But “[t]he main efforts of his life,” the pastor of St. Mary’s Church, Rev. Charles R. Corley, said at Thomas Cornell’s funeral, “were for his church. He came to Yonkers when it was but a hamlet. He at once put forth efforts so the members of the Catholic faith could get together and have a house in which to worship. Father [Thomas] Preston, the first priest that came to Yonkers, leaned on him for support.”
Thomas Cornell had a hand in the founding of St. Mary’s Church in 1848, of St. Joseph’s Church in 1871, and of St. Peter’s Church in 1894. He donated the land in Riverdale on which the original St. Margaret’s Church was built. He was likewise active in the establishment of both St. Mary’s School and St. Joseph ‘s Hospital. He served as a hospital trustee and as the hospital’s treasurer.
“[T]he archbishop asked for his assistance,” Father Corley noted, “when he wished to establish the Sisters of Charity in Yonkers. It was given and Mr. Cornell has ever been their faithful friend.” (During the course of the following century, thousands of Yonkers school children were taught by the Sisters of Charity—at St. Mary’s, St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s schools.)
Indeed, Cornell accompanied Archbishop John Hughes on a tour of the Edwin Forrest estate—now the College of Mount Saint Vincent—when the Sisters of Charity were considering the purchase of that property in the mid-1850s. (Throughout much of the 19th century, the town of Yonkers extended south to encompass areas now part of the Bronx.) A full account of the matter, including an amusing episode involving the bishop’s reaction to Forrest’s castle, is given in Cornell’s article on The Beginnings of the Roman Catholic Church in Yonkers, a copy of which is held in the Vertical Files at the Riverfront Library.
Let the last words on this illustrious life be those of Father Corley:
“For 17 years he was my friend and I always found him a true man, a good friend and loving husband.”
(Note that Thomas Cornell’s memoir, Some reminiscences of the old Philipse Manor House in Yonkers and its surroundings, was published by the Yonkers Historical Society in the Yonkers Historical Bulletin, volume XXXIV, number 1 (1988-1989). And in the same publication—volume XX, number 1 (1973)—one can read Helen M. McCadden’s “Early newspapers in Yonkers” (Part I), in which she describes Thomas Cornell’s role in starting the Herald and, later, the Examiner. The Bulletin may be consulted at the Riverfront Library.)