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Robert McNamara

New York City Faced Disasters In the Early 1800s

By October 29, 2012

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With much of the media focused today on how Hurricane Sandy will impact New York City and the rest of the Northeast, we're reminded that the city faced disasters in the early 19th century ranging from storms to plague to a colossal fire.

An enormous hurricane pummeled New York in 1821 and its fury was described in the New York Post the following day:

"The falling of slate from the roofs of buildings, and broken glass from the windows, made it unsafe for any one to venture into the streets."

New York City recovered from what became known as The Great September Gale, but faced other disasters. In the late 1820s and early 1830s a cholera epidemic was tracked from Asia to Europe to North America, and the deadly disease finally appeared in New York in 1832. Astoundingly, about 100,000 people, or about half the city's population, fled in fear.

A few years later, in 1835, a fire broke out in lower Manhattan and quickly spread through neighborhoods of warehouses. New York's Great Fire might have consumed the entire city if not for some quick thinking and the help of U.S. Marines.

Gunpowder rowed across the East River in a daring operation was used to set charges. The Marines blew up buildings along Wall Street, creating a mountain of rubble which blocked the advancing wall of flames.

Following the Great Fire, New Yorkers managed to rebuild lower Manhattan. And while that area is particularly menaced by Hurricane Sandy, if history is any guide, New Yorkers will likely learn a few lessons, will get through it, and will be ready to face the next disaster.

Illustration: Flames consumed the Merchants' Exchange on Wall Street in the Great Fire of 1835/courtesy New York Public Library Digital Collections

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