Great Fire of New York
The fire began on the evening of December 16, 1835 in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street (now called Beaver Street) at the intersection with Pearl Street between Hanover Square, Manhattan and Wall Street in the snow-covered city and was fed by gale-force winds blowing from the northwest towards the East River. With temperatures as low as −17 °F (−27 °C) and the East River frozen solid, firefighters had to cut holes in the ice to get water. Water then froze in the hoses and pumps. Attempts to blow up buildings in its path (a technique later regarded as counterproductive) were thwarted by a lack of gunpowder in Manhattan. Firefighters coming to help from Philadelphia said they could see signs of the fire there.
About 2 a.m. Marines returned with gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and blew up buildings in the fire's path. By then it covered 50 acres (200,000 m2), 17 blocks of the city, destroying between 530 and 700 buildings. The area is now reported as Coenties Slip in the south to Maiden Lane in the north and from William Street in the west to the East River. The losses were estimated at twenty million dollars, which, in today's value would be hundreds of millions. Twenty people were killed.
Insurance was not forthcoming because several insurance company headquarters burned, bankrupting those companies. A description of the conflagration was in the History of New York:
- Many of the stores were new, with iron shutters and doors and copper roofs, and in burning presented the appearance of immense iron furnaces in full blast. The heat at times melted the copper roofing, and the liquid ran off in great drops. The gale blew towards the East River. Wall after wall was heard tumbling like an avalanche. Fiery tongues of flame leaped from roof and windows along whole streets, and seemed to be making angry dashes at each other. The water of the bay looked like a vast sea of blood. The bells rang for a while and then ceased. Both sides of Pearl Street and Hanover Square were at the same instant in the jaws of the hungry monster.
An investigation did not assess blame and reported that the cause of the fire was a burst gas pipe that was ignited by a coal stove.
Since the fire occurred in the middle of an economic boom caused by the recent opening of the Erie Canal, the destroyed wooden buildings were quickly replaced by larger stone and brick ones that were less prone to widespread major fires. The fire also prompted construction of a new municipal water supply, now known as the Old Croton Aqueduct, and a reform and expansion of the fire service. As a result, this was the last great fire of New York. Still, the insurance companies that lost buildings in the fire decided rebuilding was not worth the risk, and moved operations to Hartford, Connecticut. Today, Hartford is still known as the "Insurance Capital of the World."
The report gives a colourful account of the damage:
A most awful conflagration occurred at New York on the 15th of December, by which 600 buildings were destroyed, comprising the most valuable district of the city, including the entire destruction of the Exchange, the Post Office, and an immense number of stores. The fire raged incessantly for upwards of fifteen hours. The shipping along the line of wharfs suffered greatly; several vessels were totally destroyed. The property consumed is estimated at 20,000,000 dollars.
It also praises the resilience of the population in recovering from the catastrophe:
In this midst of this terrible visitation, however, it is consolatory to see the elastic energy of the people. Instead of wasting their time in despondency over this frightful desolation, the whole population seems to on the alert to repair the mischief.
Recovery meant improved buildings, which would require financing. Negotiations were swiftly undertaken, and the cooperativeness of banks was seen as crucial in preventing an economic disaster:
Plans of rebuilding on an improved scale, and modes of borrowing money for that purpose, on sound securities, are under arrangement. The energy of the inhabitants, and the ready manner in which the banks had offered to make advances to the different insurance companies, as well as to private individuals, would avert, it was expected, a commercial crisis.
- Great Fire of New York (1776)
- Great Fire of New York (1845)
- Great Fire of London
- 1871 Great Chicago Fire
- Great Fire of Turku
Notes and references
- According to oldstreets.com Merchant Street was originally called Exchange Street but changed to the Merchant name in 1835. After the fire the street was moved further south and became Beaver Street
- "Heroes of Ground Zero: FDNY - A History
- Exhibit Details Devastation of Years Past
- New York: Its Origin, Rise, and Progress by Mrs Burton Harrison, Martha Joanna Lamb - 1896
- Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments
- Gentleman's Magazine, by "Sylvanus Urban," Vol. V, New Series, January-June 1836 (London: William Pickering, John Bowyer Nichols & Son, 1836), p. 196. Accessed 19 March 2012.
- "Chapter 18: The Great Conflagration of 1835", History of the Fire Department of the City of New York.