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 streams and waterways of Manhattan
We think of New York as an island packed with buildings, a place of concrete sidewalks and tarmacked avenues, a city that, as Frank Sinatra sang, “doesn’t sleep.” But Manhattan at the turn of the 19th century—in the years before its street grid was laid out and decades before the Great Fire of 1835, which would accelerate the city’s northward growth—was a very different sort of place. New York City back then was a sleepy town just on the island of Manhattan. The five boroughs—Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island—did not consolidate into Greater New York until 1898. And while there were a few scattered communities as well as farms and estates to the north of 14th Street, the main community sat on the southern tip of the island.
Much of Manhattan in the late 18th and early 19th century was still a wild place. Forests and marshes blanketed parts of the surface. The Lenapes lived here before the Dutch arrived, and these native Americans called their land Manahatta, which possibly means “Island of Many Hills” or “the place where we get bows.” Both names seem appropriate. Woods were dense with maples, chestnuts, beech, hickory, oak, and birches, and its abundance of wood served as a good source for weaponry. And the island was covered by 573 hills. Some like Bayard’s Mount in the area of current day Foley’s Square, were quite large, with lawyer William Duer writing how it “rose gradually from its margin to the height of one hundred feet.” Further uptown ran a string of sand hills, which the Dutch called Zandtberg. Harlem meanwhile had fertile meadows and plains.
Thick berry bushes covered the ground, and the land was populated with deer and elk, as well as an occasional wolf, bear, and cougar. Beavers lived in the marshes, while wood ducks splashed in the ponds, and passenger pigeons blackened the sky. Parts of the island were water-logged, and the area of current day Pearl Street was a swampy meadow inhabited by partridges and heath hens.
The island had 21 ponds and salt pannes, and near Bayard’s Mount stretched the Collect, a kettle pond that was created by glacial melt water. Its name is a corruption of the Kalch Hoek, Dutch for lime point, a name the settlers bestowed on the body of water after they came across large mounds of oyster shells left by the Lenapes. In the water lived killifishes and yellow-bellied cobblers. Future mayor Daniel Tiemann recalled how “We used to catch perch, sunfish, and eels in this lake in Summer.” To the west lay Lispenard’s Meadow where Tribeca now stretches, a marsh with pools and swamps, bulrushes and brambles, and filled with water snakes and bullfrogs. Other areas like Stuyvesant’s Meadows in the current-day East Village were lined with cattails, bladderworts, duckweed, water lilies, and pondweeds.
Springs dotted the surface. Author Washington Irving wrote how the center of the island has “a sweet and rural valley, beautified with many a bright wild flower, refreshed by many a pure streamlet.” Sixty-six miles of these waterways flowed through the island. Two of them met up at Sixth Ave. and 12th Street and flowed south and through what would become Washington Square Park. The Dutch called it Bestevaer’s Killetje, while the English named it Minetta Brook. Trout coursed in the waterway. Before it flowed into the Hudson River, it ran alongside Aaron Burr’s home on Richmond Hill. There the nation’s third vice president formed Burr’s Pond, on which his beloved daughter Theodosia loved to skate.
A stream started around Fifth Avenue and 46th Street and ran into Kip’s Bay. Another one began at Broadway and 44th Street and expanded at Madison Avenue in the lower 30s into Sun Fish Pond. It proved popular for fishermen. Children collected hickory nuts from the trees along its edges. To the north in the 40s lay Turtle Bay, named for a turtle-filled cove, which sat on the edge of the East River, a tidal estuary with porpoises, seals, and whales. Further up the island, there were such water sources as the Kill of Schepmoes, Unquenchable Spring, Montayne’s Rivulet, and Sherman Creek.
The British military occupied New York during the Revolutionary War. After they departed in 1783, citizens started settling to the north, as developers began straightening out and widening the town’s paths and laying out streets. In the process, property owners filled in streams, marshes, and ponds. By the early 19th century, the city had cut down the trees around the Collect and filled the body of water and nearby marsh. Bayard’s Mount was leveled and pushed into the Collect, and Lispenard’s Meadow dried out.
Then, in 1811, the city fathers decided on a grid pattern for orderly development above Houston Street. The town started selling parcels of public land, while families quickly divided up their farms and estates and offered building lots. Within five decades, settled streets had reached three miles north up to the newly created Central Park. Work had begun on the park in the mid 1850s, and by the time of the Civil War it had become a beloved and much needed refuge in a city that continued to give preference to development over nature.