The Great Fire of 1835 Helped Create Modern New York City

On December 16, 1835, a gale blanketed Manhattan in snow. Merchant Gabriel Disosway remembers that as night fell it was “the coldest we’ve had in thirty-six years”. Then at 9pm, members of City Watch discovered a fire burning at Comstock & Andrews on Merchant Street. Officer William Hays recalled how “We found the whole interior of the building in flames, from the cellar to the roof… Almost immediately the flames went through the roof.”

Firefighters rushed to the blaze. They tapped the nearby fire hydrants and, looking for additional water, headed for the foot of Wall Street to break through the ice of the East River and pump out more. But it was so cold outside that when the water poured in, the strong wind blew it back into their faces and they found it impossible to stop the flames.
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Winding streets filled lower Manhattan, and within 15 minutes Watchman Hays realized “about 50 buildings were ablaze.” Former mayor Philip Hone rushed from his Broadway home and later wrote how “the advancing flames, like lightning, communicated in all directions, and a few minutes were enough to level the tall buildings on either side” .

Across downtown Manhattan, shopkeepers seeking to salvage inventory emptied stores, and mahogany tables, cases of wine, silks, linens and cutlery boxes cluttered the streets. An important location in the east of the city was Hanover Square. But as the goods piled up, people trampled the fabrics and broke the furniture. Then, according to new York Sun“a burst of flames, like lightning”, shot “through the square, blown by the strong wind, and set fire to the whole mass, which it in a few moments consumed in ashes, then communicated to the houses opposite.”

Soon downtown Manhattan – a third of a mile from Broad to South Streets and a similar distance to Coenties Slip – was engulfed in flames. Disosway climbed onto the roof of a building to get a sense of the extent of the blaze and wrote that it was an “ocean of fire, so to speak, with roaring waves, rolling and burning… swaying walls and falling chimneys, with black smoke and hissing and crashing noises on all sides.

The blaze indiscriminately destroyed businesses, churches, homes and shops, the heat proving so intense that it melted metal shutters, doors and gutters. Disosway then reports that “a terrible explosion occurred nearby with the sound of a cannon. The earth shook. Soon “a second explosion took place, then another and another.” The detonations were produced by saltpeter stored in a warehouse. Drums of liquor and gunpowder also exploded. On the docks of Manhattan, barrels of semen and other oils caught fire. The turpentine spilled out of the containers, and the new York evening shift reported that the contents “poured into the landslide like a stream of hot lava and spread across the surface of the river for several hundred meters, sending up a brilliant flame and making the river appear to be in fire”.

Nicolino Calyo/Kean Collection/Getty ImagesAn illustration showing New York City buildings in ruins after the Great Fire of 1835.

At one o’clock in the morning all the fire hoses were frozen and Mayor Cornelius Lawrence, Fire Chief James Gulick, James Alexander Hamilton – Alexander Hamilton’s son – and others decided they had to do jump buildings to create a fire break and put out the flames. Hamilton scoured stores for gunpowder. new York American editor Charles King departed for the Brooklyn Navy Yard to search for more explosives. Meanwhile, Army Lt. Robert Temple and two others rowed to Governors Island and found 100-pound barrels of gunpowder.

Forty-eight Exchange Place had been chosen as the building to be blown up. As fire poured through the hatch, the men placed a barrel in the cellar and spread a trail of powder on the floor. Hamilton lit the fuse and, as former fire chief Uzziah Wenman recalled, “the whole building seemed to rise and shake.”

Unfortunately the explosion didn’t work as planned and they had to blow up #52. This explosion slowed the fire and they soon leveled other buildings. By the early hours of December 17, the seemingly relentless march of fire had been halted. Hamilton returned to his residence and recalled, “When I got to my living room, I passed out.”

The area of ​​the great fire was largely a business district, and only a few people died. The fire, however, destroyed 674 buildings at a cost of $20 million, equivalent to $600 million today. James Gordon Bennett visited what quickly became known as the “Burnt District”. the new York Herald the editor wrote about the devastation, families wrapped in blankets, merchants crying, crews trying to salvage goods, others making bonfires with once-expensive goods for warmth and the difficulty of getting through this which used to be streets as they were littered with goods and heated bricks. As Bennett observed, there was “nothing but smoke, fire, and dust”.

    Ruins of Merchant's Exchange NY after the Great Fire of 1835.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection/The New York Public Library Ruins of Merchant’s Exchange NY after the Great Fire of 1835.

When Hone inspected the wreckage, he found himself “tired in body, troubled in spirit”. The newspapers filled columns with lists of casualties. A merchant lost $300,000 on silk alone. Nicholas Biddle, the president of the second largest bank in the United States, came to town and offered the bank’s help. The Treasury Department asked the Customs Department to extend the bond period for those affected. Albany authorized a $6 million loan, which is about $180 million today.

The day after the fire, silk merchant Arthur Tappan summoned a builder and made arrangements for a new building. The College of Aldermen discussed the need to widen and repair the streets. In January 1836, the American monthly magazine reported, “The clanking of trowels is already heard among the half-cooled bricks, and mortar dust even now mingles with the smoke of the still shouldered ruins.” New buildings sprang up along Wall Street and elsewhere in the Burnt District, and Mary Sturges observed how the city was “like a phoenix from the ashes”.

At the time, New York City was located on the southern end of the island, and although a network of streets had been established for Manhattan, the built city only spanned about 14and St. Villages and farms dotted the land to the north. But as downtown recovered, avenues stretched, new homes were built, businesses and congregations seeking more space abandoned their old offices and shrines and created more. taller up in town.

As businesses expand, workers looking for jobs and immigrants looking for new homes flock to the city. Shops, restaurants and hotels opened, and pedestrians, newsagents, housewives, businessmen, clerks, merchants and customers thronged the streets. So many activities brought not only traffic jams but also dangers. In 1839 the new York shimmer enumerated some of the perils and nuisances in the streets, from the “villainous noise made by the milkmen” to the “street beggars by the thousands; hand organ and monkey, singing girls.

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Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, inventors like Samuel FB Morse, and architects like Richard Upjohn settled in the city. The New York Philharmonic started giving concerts and PT Barnum created his American Museum with his mock exhibits. The wealthy supported cultural institutions such as the Astor Place Opera House, browsed great stores, frequented upscale theaters and dined in fine restaurants, while the burgeoning working class frequented taverns, music halls and oyster cellars.

New York grew at a breakneck pace, with the population more than tripling from 268,089 in 1835 to 813,669 in 1860. Change came faster and faster with the construction of an aqueduct which brought great amount of water to the city – to quench the city’s thirst, fight fires and the fuel industry – gas lighting, transport, heating, stoves and coolers. In 1855, the census lists 31 shipbuilders in New York, Brooklyn and Williamsburg. The town was also a major player in the cotton trade, with local businessmen receiving $0.40 for every dollar spent on southern cotton. Between 1840 and 1860, investment in manufacturing increased by almost 550%, and from 1855 to 1860 the value of industrial products increased by 60%. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote how he could see from his window in Brooklyn a “great city of a thousand shining eyes, lying down, but always on the lookout, always murmuring, night and day, like a huge mumbling monster” .

On the eve of the Civil War, houses lined the streets more than four miles north of where the great fire broke out. At the time the grid was planned, little attention had been paid to the creation of parks. But the phenomenal growth and increase in industry made city leaders realize that they needed to restore what shimmer called “the lungs of the city”. Fortunately, by the mid-1850s, more than a square mile in the center of the island was set aside for Central Park, a place that quickly became a large and permanent place for New Yorkers to escape the frenetic pace of life. ‘a community apparently never at peace.

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And more importantly, the changes that took place during those years paved the way for even greater changes half a century later. Plans began for the settlement of the still undeveloped part of northern Manhattan. The area was developed, construction accelerated on the island, and authorities began monitoring the surrounding area. Then, on January 1, 1898, Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island came together to create Greater New York. What was a 65 square mile city grew into a 304 square mile metropolis, its population nearly doubling from 1.8 million to 3.35 million, making New York at the time the second largest city in the world. world, after London.

“The end of old New York and the beginning of the great city was marked last night by perhaps the biggest, loudest and most hilarious New Year’s Eve celebration that the island of Manhattan has ever had. known,” reported the new York Grandstand. “The air was filled with the din of hundreds of horns and thousands of shouts. The streets were filled with a howling, jostling, laughing crowd.

Manhattan Phoenix Book Jacket


Daniel S. Levy is the author of Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New Yorknow available from Oxford University Press


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