New York's Great Fire of 1835 destroyed much of lower Manhattan on a December night so frigid that volunteer firemen were unable to battle the walls of flame as water froze in their hand-pumped fire engines.
By the following morning, most of the present day financial district of New York City was reduced to smoking rubble.
When the entire city had been threatened by an advancing wall of flame, a desperate move was attempted: gunpowder, procured from the Brooklyn Navy Yard by U.S. Marines, was used to implode buildings on Wall Street. The rubble formed a wall that stopped the flames from marching northward and consuming the rest of the city.
While the Great Fire caused tremendous damage, only two people were killed. But that was because the fire was concentrated in a neighborhood of commercial, not residential, buildings.
And New York City managed to recover. Lower Manhattan was entirely rebuilt within a few years.
The Great Fire Broke Out In a Warehouse
December 1835 was bitterly cold, and for several days in the middle of the month the temperatures dropped to nearly zero. On the night of December 16, 1835 a city watchmen patrolling in the neighborhood smelled smoke.
Approaching the corner of Pearl Street and Exchange Place, the watchmen realized the interior of a five-story warehouse was in flames. He sounded alarms, and various volunteer fire companies began to respond.
The situation was perilous. The neighborhood of the fire was packed with hundreds of warehouses, and the flames quickly spread through the congested maze of narrow streets.
When the Erie Canal had opened a decade earlier, the port of New York had become a major center of importing and exporting. And thus the warehouses of lower Manhattan were typically filled with goods which had arrived from Europe, China, and elsewhere and which were destined to be transported throughout the country.
On that freezing night in December 1835, the warehouses in the path of the flames held a concentration of some of the most expensive goods on earth, including fine silks, lace, glassware, coffee, teas, liquors, chemicals, and musical instruments.
The Fire Spread Throughout Lower Manhattan
New York's volunteer fire companies, led by their popular chief engineer James Gulick, made valiant efforts to fight the fire as it spread down the narrow streets. But they were frustrated by cold weather and strong winds.
Hydrants had frozen, so chief engineer Gulick directed men to pump water from the East River, which was partly frozen. Even when water was obtained and the pumps worked, the high winds tended to blow water back into the faces of the firemen.
During the very early morning of December 17, 1835, the fire became enormous, and a large triangular section of the city, essentially anything south of Wall Street between Broad Street and the East River, burned beyond control.
The flames grew so high that a reddish glow in the winter sky was visible at vast distances. It was reported that fire companies as far away as Philadelphia were activated, as it appeared nearby towns or forests must be ablaze.
At one point casks of turpentine on the East River docks exploded and spilled into the river. Until a spreading layer of turpentine floating atop the water burned off, it appeared that New York Harbor was on fire.
With no way to fight the fire, it looked as if the flames might march northward and consume much of the city, including nearby residential neighborhoods.
The Merchants' Exchange on Wall Street Was Destroyed
The northern end of the fire was at Wall Street, where one of the most impressive buildings in the entire country, the Merchants' Exchange, was consumed in flames.
Only a few years old, the three-story structure had a rotunda topped with a cupola. A magnificent marble facade faced Wall Street. The Merchants' Exchange was considered one of the finest buildings in America, and was a central business location for New York's thriving community of merchants and importers.
In the rotunda of the Merchants' Exchange was a marble statue of Alexander Hamilton. Funds for the statue had been raised from the city's business community. The sculptor, Ball Hughes, had spent two years carving it from a block of white Italian marble.
Eight sailors from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, who had been brought in to enforce crowd control, rushed up the steps of the burning Merchants' Exchange and tried to rescue the statue of Hamilton. As a crowd gathered on Wall Street watched, the sailors managed to wrest the statue from its base, but they had to run for their lives when the building began to collapse around them.
The sailors escaped just as the cupola of the Merchants' Exchange fell inward. And as the entire building collapsed the marble statue of Hamilton was shattered.
The Desperate Search for Gunpowder
A plan was quickly devised to blow up buildings along Wall Street and thus build a rubble wall to stop the advancing flames.
A detachment of U.S. Marines who had arrived from the Brooklyn Navy Yard were sent back across the East River to procure gunpowder.
Fighting through ice on the East River in a small boat, the Marines obtained barrels of powder from the Navy Yard's magazine. They wrapped the gunpowder in blankets so airborne embers from the fire couldn't ignite it, and safely delivered it to Manhattan.
Charges were set, and a number of buildings along Wall Street were blown up, creating a rubble barrier that blocked the advancing flames.
Aftermath of the Great New York Fire
Newspaper reports about the Great Fire expressed utter shock. No blaze of that size had ever occurred in America. And the idea that the center of what had become the nation's commercial center had been destroyed in one night was nearly beyond belief.
A detailed newspaper dispatch from New York which appeared in New England newspapers in the following days related how fortunes had been lost overnight: "Many of our fellow citizens, who retired to their pillows in affluence, were bankrupt on awaking."
The numbers were staggering: 674 buildings had been destroyed, with virtually every structure south of Wall Street and east of Broad Street either reduced to rubble or damaged beyond repair. Many of the buildings had been insured, but 23 of the city's 26 fire insurance companies were put out of business.
The total cost was estimated to be more than $20 million, a colossal amount at the time, representing three times the cost of the entire Erie Canal.
Legacy of the Great Fire
New Yorkers asked for federal aid and only got a portion of what they asked for. But the Erie Canal authority loaned money to merchants who had to rebuild, and commerce continued in Manhattan.
Within a few years the entire financial district, an area of about 40 acres, had been rebuilt. Some streets were widened, and they featured new streetlights fueled by gas. And the new buildings in the neighborhood were constructed to be fire-resistant.
The Merchants' Exchange was rebuilt on Wall Street, which remained the center of American finance.
Because of the Great Fire of 1835, there is a scarcity of landmarks dating from before the 19th century in lower Manhattan. But the city learned valuable lessons about preventing and fighting fires, and a blaze of that magnitude never threatened the city again.
Gratitude is expressed to New York Public Library Digital Collections for the use of the lithograph of the Great Fire