In the 1830s, New York was a small city. While the island of Manhattan had a prosperous community at its southern end, its northern area contained farms, villages, streams, and woods. Then on the evening of 16 December 1835, a fire broke out near Wall Street. It swept away 674 buildings and though the devastation seemed absolute, citizens quickly rebuilt. They pushed development up the island, so that by the Civil War homes lined the streets near the new Central Park.
Learn about the Great Fire of 1835, and the city that existed before and grew after that blaze in this series of blog posts from Daniel S. Levy, author of Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York.
The Great Fire of 1835
All day on 16 December 1835, a gale blanketed Manhattan with snow. The Pearl Street merchant Gabriel Disosway remembered how when night fell it was “the coldest one we had had for thirty-six years.” At nine that evening, members of the City Watch discovered a fire burning at Comstock & Andrews, a brick dry goods store on Merchant Street. Officer William Hays recalled how “We found the whole interior of the building in flames from cellar to roof… Almost immediately the flames broke through the roof.”
Chief Engineer James Gulick and fire crews raced to the blaze. Firemen tapped the nearby hydrants. In search of more water, crews headed to the foot of Wall Street to break through the ice on the East River and pump water. But it was so cold out that when they got the water moving, the strong wind slapped it back into their faces.
Lower Manhattan was filled with crooked streets, and within 15 minutes of the alarm, Watchman Hays realized that “fully fifty buildings were blazing.” Merchants desperately sought for places to move their goods before they were destroyed. Throughout downtown Manhattan—for a third of a mile from Broad to South Streets and a similar distance down to Coenties Slip—businesses emptied their buildings and piles of mahogany tables, sideboards, sofas, silks, satins, broadcloths, boxes of cutlery, and crates of expensive wine littered the streets. A prominent spot on the city’s eastern edge was the triangular-shaped Hanover Square through which Pearl Street ran. But as merchandise piled up, people streamed through and they trampled fabrics into the snow and mud, broke furniture, splintered boxes, and scattered bottles. Then, according to the Sun, “a gust of flame, like a streak of lightning,” came from the northeast corner building, and it shot “across the square, blown by the strong wind, and set fire to the entire mass, which it in a few moments consumed to cinders, and then communicated to the houses opposite.”
By 10 PM, everything seemed to be engulfed: “The bells ringing—the fire engines rolling—the foremen bawling—the wind blowing—the snow driving—the whole heavens above illuminated, formed altogether a terrific spectacle,” reported the New York Herald. It didn’t help that many of the firemen were exhausted from fighting fires on Water and Chrystie Streets from the night before. To compound matters, those fires had largely drained the city’s reservoir, and made it impossible to get enough pressure to shoot the water high enough.
Since there seemed to be little else that they could do, Gulick ordered his men to assist businessmen and others in rescuing goods. Soon, though, the South Reformed Dutch Church, which stood south of Wall Street and was seen as a safe place to store goods, caught on fire. As the church burned, organ music wafted out with the billowing smoke. The organist, wrote Disosway, had “commenced performing upon it its own funeral dirge.” Then, reported the Star, “The bright gold ball and star above it on the highest point of the spire, gleamed brilliantly.” The organ music only stopped when the ceiling took fire. Then the steeple “gave one surge and fell in all their glory into the heap of chaos beneath them.”
“The blaze indiscriminately destroyed the grand Merchants’ Exchange, homes, churches, banks, and stores, the heat so intense it melted metal shutters, doors, roofs, and gutters.”
The Journal of Commerce’s office stood near the church. Seeing what happened to the sanctuary, editor Gerald Hallock felt it “prepared us fully to expect a similar fate.” He and his staff emptied the office as best they could. By luck, Thomas Downing, the African American restauranter whose popular oyster house stood on Broad Street, noticed a hogshead of vinegar in a shed. The cold had not frozen the liquid, so Hallock, Downing and others carried around pails of liquid and splashed the Journal and the oyster house, and, as Hallock noted, “by this one feat with waterpails and dippers, we have no doubt that at least a million dollars was saved from destruction.”
The blaze indiscriminately destroyed the grand Merchants’ Exchange, homes, churches, banks, and stores, the heat so intense it melted metal shutters, doors, roofs, and gutters. Disosway then reported how “a terrible explosion occurred nearby with the noise of a cannon. The earth shook. We ran for safety, not knowing what might follow.” Soon “a second explosion took place, then another and another.” The blasts were produced by bags of saltpeter stored in a warehouse. Liquor casks also exploded, as did barrels of gunpowder. On Manhattan’s docks, storehouses filled with barrels of sperm and other oils ignited. Along Manhattan’s shoreline, barrels of turpentine spilled from their containers, and the Evening Post reported that the contents “poured down into the slip like a stream of burning lava, and spread out over the surface of the river for several hundred yards, sending up a bright flame, and giving the appearance of the river being on fire.”
At one in the morning, all the hoses used to put out the fire laid frozen. After the Dutch church steeple fell, Mayor Cornelius Lawrence, Gulick, James Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s son—and others decided that they needed to blow up buildings to create a fire break to staunch the flames. Hamilton, Lawrence, and Alderman Morgan Smith scoured stores for gunpowder. The Army Corps of Engineers sent cartridges and powder. But they didn’t have enough, so New York American editor Charles King set off for the Brooklyn Navy Yard to seek more powder. Army Lieutenant Robert Temple meanwhile headed to Governors Island. There he obtained kegs of powder and headed back with a number of men, landing on Manhattan after 3 AM.
Forty-Eight Exchange Place had been chosen as the building to blow up. It stood across the street from the remains of the Dutch church. Fire was falling through the hatchway as they carried a cask into the cellar. A piece of calico was attached to the container. A train of powder was then spread across the floor. Hamilton lit the fuse, and as former fire chief Uzziah Wenman recalled, “the whole building seemed to rise up and quiver.”
Unfortunately, the blast did not go exactly as planned, and they had to then blow up No. 52. By then King had made it ashore with the powder and the marines and sailors placed the barrel in the cellar. That explosion slowed the fire, and other buildings were soon also destroyed. In the early hours of 17 December, the seemingly relentless march of the fire that consumed 674 buildings, destroyed much of the city’s business district, and cost the equivalent of $600 million today, had been stopped. Hamilton returned to his family at the City Hotel on Broadway, and recalled, “My work was done. My cloak was stiff with frozen water. I was so worn down by the excitement that when I got to my parlor I fainted.”
Read the next blog posts in the series:
- New York City: the life and times of the Bowery Theater
- New York City: the streams and waterways of Manhattan
- New York City: the grid
Featured image: The Great Fire of the City of New York, 16 December 1835, from The New York Public Library