The Story of the Great New York Fire of 1835
he citizen vote authorizing the Croton system had come in April 1835. Within eight months, to emphasize beyond all doubt the need for water, the city had the largest conflagration in America up to that time. Like most fires that burn so massively out of control, the fire demon in December of 1835 had co-conspirators: the weather, the wind, and frozen water. Snow covered the city and temperatures were below zero. High winds raged out of the northwest. Water from virtually any source, including rivers and hydrants, was frozen. Even when firemen would miraculously get some water to flow, it was a struggle to keep it from solidifying in the engines and hose. It was no help that the fire department itself was undermanned as a result of the two outbreaks of cholera in 1832 and 1834.
Zophar Mills, Foremen of Engine Company No. 13, responded to the alarms sounded around nine o'clock the night of December 16. Watchmen had discovered a fire in the center of the financial district a block from Wall Street. In the course of the first half hour 25 Merchant Street was fully ablaze and the fire had spread to the 'whole sides of the street'. The powerful wind soon forced the fire across Merchant and down Exchange Street to Pearl Street. The burning five-story financial offices, commercial buildings, and warehouses turned the entire triangular block bordered by Exchange-Merchant-Pearl into a furnace.
As he had so many times before, Mills roused his company with "leather-lung" roars that penetrated the blocks north of Wall Street between Pearl Street and William Street where many of the firemen in his company lived, "Turn out! Turn out! Fire! Fire!" The firemen of Zophar Mills' company were exhausted having worked long into the night before at a large fire in Burling Slip where several stores burned. The night before that there were two fires, one that burned a store and five houses on Water Street and another that 'consumed' seven two-story buildings on Chrystie Street. The last thing the firemen wanted to hear from the comfort and warmth of their firesides was Zophar rousing them to duty once again in the bleak, gale-chilled night. But came they did.
The fire house for Engine #13 was on Dover Street near Pearl, which was a little over a half-mile from the fire ground. The company mustered and, although they were not the first engine on the scene, were among the first to form a line from the river to Wall Street. Hook and ladder men had axed their way through the ice to get to the river water. Engine #33 put on a brig in the river placed its suction into the water and fed Engine #26 whose hose continued into a line of engines that reached Engine #2. Engine #2's hose fed into Zophar's Engine #13, which was by then near Pearl and Wall Streets. At Zophar's instruction, once the men started pumping the hand rails ('rushing the brakes'), they did not stop even if the water was down to a dribble. If they stopped, the entire engine would freeze-up. For the engines that did freeze, their crews had to run them back to their engine house and defrost them. This would put the company out of action for an hour or more. Zophar remembered years later that he poured brandy into the engine to keep it running and "I had to put some of the brandy in my boots to keep my socks loose."
The fire spread quickly ignoring the first efforts of the fire department. By 11:00 the fire had crossed Pearl Street burning the block down to Water Street. By 11:30 the fire raged in every direction. All the buildings on Exchange Street east of Merchant Street, having burned for almost two hours, were destroyed. A few buildings west on Exchange Place were on fire. The fire southwest on Exchange Street threatened William Street. The fire north threatened the large Merchants Exchange building itself.
By 12:00 the back of the Merchant Exchange, about 150 feet from its columned entrance on Wall Street, began to smolder. Several engine companies fought desperately to save the Post Office housed in the lower floor in the back of the Exchange. They managed to delay the fire for two hours while letters, documents, commercial paper, and records were removed to safety. However, by 2:00, the Exchange could not be saved. Fire Chief James Gulick repositioned Mills' Engine #13 to Wall Street in front of the Merchants Exchange to keep the fire from crossing Wall Street.
By about four o'clock in the morning, still on Wall Street, Engine #13 again moved, this time east toward the river to the northwest corner of the Wall Street-Water Street intersection. There stood the Tontine Coffee Shop, a venerable New York landmark. At first, Engine #13 pumping through the hose at street level was sufficient to cover the old building, quenching the incipient flames on its shingle roof several times. But, as the night wore on, the wind that lifted flames across the street began to blast the spray from #13's nozzle (attached by a short length of hose to the engine) away from the higher parts of the building. The roof, the old building, and all of the neighborhoods of New York to the north were in danger. It was then that the 'superhuman efforts' of Company #13 saved that part of the city. Mills quickly directed his men to build an improvised platform. They dragged a high wooden display case that had been taken out of a nearby store and placed a large brandy cask on top of it. His men clambered up the counter and vaulted one of their team to the top of the cask. The height advantage, perhaps only ten to fifteen feet, was enough to get their hose up and play directly on the roof and keep the fire under control. Just as the fireman holding the nozzle at the top was almost frozen, another would take his place. The cold was bitter. They did their duty until the fire was out. The fire was stopped north.
Earlier Zophar and his team were also credited with testing another firefighting technique, blowing up buildings to form a fire break. It had been clear to city officials since 2:00AM that Wall Street was the crucial northern line of defense to contain the fire south. It was also clear that the tall buildings could not be defended for very long by engines throwing water into the high wind. They decided to test blowing up buildings to form a firebreak. The idea was that once the buildings were blown down by explosives the water from engines and hose could more easily drench the rubble and keep the fire from spreading. Zophar Mills devised a test using what little gunpowder was then available on two buildings near the Tontine Coffee House. His efforts were successful and they, no doubt, persuaded city officials, including the Mayor and Fire Chief, to expand gunpowder fire breaks to other parts of the fire ground.
At about the same time, James Alexander Hamilton, having been awakened at the City Hotel and alerted to the dangers of the fire, came to the conclusion that the city needed to organize a gunpowder team and use it to stop the fire. Hamilton quickly enlisted Alderman Jourdan to help him get an authorization from Mayor Lawrence for the procurement of gunpowder. The Mayor did not need much persuasion. The consensus of city officials at that point already was that gunpowder was needed and it was needed fast. The Mayor sent Charles King, the editor of a newspaper that burned down that night, to get barrels of gunpowder, along with a squad of sailors familiar with the explosive, from the Navy Yard in Brooklyn. Hamilton and the former head of the US Army Corps of Engineers, General James Swift, surveyed the fire ground so that they could recommend where best to apply the barrels of gunpowder when it arrived. While waiting for King's reinforcements, the Mayor, Hamilton and Swift scavenged together gunpowder from stores and militia stocks to be applied against the expanding blaze.
By 3:00AM the fire had spread to both sides of William Street threatening Broad Street. The Old Dutch Church was on fire as was Exchange Place from Merchant Street to William. Merchant Street itself was already demolished. The fire also burned south along Pearl, Front, and South Streets to Old Slip, an area that had been a water-slip at one time but had largely been filled in and now contained a market that was about to burn. By 4:00AM there were flames down William Street to Hanover Square.
Hamilton and General Swift's survey indicated that they had a chance to stop the fire at Broad Street. Broad Street ran south just west of the central financial district (now in flames) separating it from residential areas further west. Even before the gunpowder from the Navy Yard arrived, Hamilton, General Swift, the Mayor, Alderman Jourdan, and Alderman Smith would try to stop the fire in Exchange Place (nee Garden Street) before it fully invested Broad Street. They cobbled together several small quantities of gunpowder from grocery stores and militia caches in the city. Hamilton and Smith then put all the powder they had in an empty lime cask, filling it one-third up, and then packing the rest of the barrel with loose papers. This explosive device, such as it was, was conveyed by the order of the Mayor and General Swift to 48 Exchange Place, the four-story store of a hapless Mr. Swan, whose only option before Hamilton and Swift placed the bomb in his cellar was to watch his store go up in the flames coming down Exchange Place.
With the barrel situated near the center of the cellar, Hamilton and Smith wrapped a fuse of calico into the top rim of the makeshift bomb-barrel and ran it along the floor to the cellar door. A train of gunpowder was sifted onto the top of the calico fuse to aid the ignition of the fabric. A little loose paper was wadded at the end to help light the fuse at the door. Hamilton volunteered to light the device, General Smith retired to Broad Street where the small crowd of the Mayor and Aldermen had taken positions. Hamilton set fire to the paper with a lighted candle and joined the crowd in the street. There was some anxiety as the train of gunpowder took fire but did not set-off any explosions. Hamilton came back close enough to make sure the calico was burning, which it was, so he quickly retired once again. The blast blew off the roof. The front of the building collapsed. Not every floor was destroyed, however, although they did begin to burn. To perfect the fire break, they determined that they would have to blow up the building next to Mr. Swan's.
Luckily, Charles King, who had heroically rowed in an open boat into a freezing gale, returned from the Navy Yard with two naval officers, 'a gang of sailors', and six barrels of gunpowder. One of the officers, Lieutenant Nicholson, placed a full barrel of powder with real fuses into the building next to Swan's not-quite-blown-up store. In the hands of a professional, the building was blown to kingdom come with no subsequent fire. Within minutes, 'the gallant tars' placed another barrel in the cellar of a nearby building amidst 'sparks and fire-brands' and blew that building to the next kingdom that was to come. This time Hamilton reported the explosion was "...entirely successful in arresting the progress of the devouring element to the westward." The powder explosions had been effective. Even the buildings on the entire east side of Broad Street nearest the fire were saved. The fire was stopped west.
Hamilton was on a roll. As the fire was stopped north by Engine #13 and others and then west by the gunpowder explosions, and would not go further east than the river of the same name, he determined to attack the fire south. "It was decided to blow up a wooden building at the corner of Coenties alley and Slip..." Sailors carried a barrel of powder into the cellar of the wooden store. Hamilton once again improvised a long fuse beginning with a fifteen foot stream of powder from the barrel to the stairs. He then ran muslin cloth, which enclosed straw for its entire length, up the stairs to the sidewalk. He lit the fuse on the sidewalk, turned his back to the burning mass of muslin and straw, and sauntered towards the crowd who was yelling at him to run. Confident of his timing, Hamilton "...with a little affectation of fearlessness..." ambled idly away, quite safe by the time a massive explosion behind him "...blew the whole house and all its contents into atoms...making thus a vacant space of many feet from the next burning house and the store, and that block was thus saved."
Most of the explosions took place in the early morning after 5:00 AM. The fire by that time had worked its way through Hanover Square crossing through Old Slip Plaza by 5:30. Between 5:30 and the time the fire was finally stopped at Coentes Slip, it had consumed most or all of six more blocks. The newspaper reported the fire "confined" by 11:00AM and "checked" at 12:00, which meant that firefighters were by then concentrating on making sure the smoldering remnants of buildings did not erupt again. It was weeks before the ruins stopped smoking completely.
James Fanning Watson, a visitor from Philadelphia, drew a map a few weeks later that delineated the range of the fire as described by another first hand witness, Philip Hone of New York. "All the property within the following limits is destroyed: south side of Wall street from William street to East river, including the Merchants' Exchange, and excepting three or four unfinished buildings above Pearl street; Exchange street, both sides, from Broad street, crossing William to Merchant street; Merchant street, both sides, from Wall street to Hanover square; Pearl street, both sides, from Wall street to Coenties Slip, with the whole sweep of Hanover square, Stone street, and Beaver street, nearly to Broad street; Water street, Front street, and South street, with all the intersecting streets and lanes from Wall street to Coenties Slip, including the south side of Coffee House Slip."
Newspapers at the time reported that six hundred seventy-four buildings were destroyed by the fire. Estimates of the loss in buildings and merchandise ranged from eighteen to twenty-six million dollars. The owner of the New York Herald newspaper, James Gordon Bennet, put the loss at twenty-million. Insurance would cover some of the losses, but with losses of this magnitude many fire insurance companies would go bankrupt. Bennet estimated the per cent of the gross loss both insured and actually reimbursable at forty per cent ($8 million), which depending on your point of view is a glass forty per cent full or sixty per cent empty.
It did not go unnoticed that the gross loss of twenty-plus millions was only about ten per cent of the amount authorized earlier in the year for the Croton water system, reinforcing the notion, no doubt, that the Croton system was a good idea although it could not help the merchants whose buildings and merchandise were smoldering embers in December 1835. The New York state legislature, having taken a leading role in authorizing and financing the Erie Canal as well as the Croton water system, had been flexible and creative in their financing of large public works. Their point of view was that the rebuilding of the city was an important public work. They quickly authorized a loan of six million dollars. The Canal Commission chipped in another one million dollars.
The representatives of New York to Washington did not do as well. The firm policy of the Federal government in 1835 (that was to continue for another half-century or more) was that it was inappropriate for the national government to contribute to local disasters like urban fires. It did, however, in its own bureaucratic generosity, refund import duties paid on unsold merchandise destroyed in the fire and extend the term for payments of duties on goods surviving the fire.
New York rebounded quickly after the fire. Major buildings were rebuilt on a grander scale, like the Merchants Exchange, which previously took half of a block on Wall Street, now extended over the entire block.
1835 Map of Stations for Engines, Hose, Hooks & Ladders and Showing Locations of Cisterns