New York City's Great Fire Of 1835

Marc Ferris describes the fateful fire which engulfed New York and helped bring about changes in the fire department.


New York City's Great Fire of 1835 was a firefighter's nightmare that ignited a political crisis and helped modernize the fire department. In the early 1800s, New York then confined to lower Manhattan Island south of 18th Street grew haphazardly. Rickety brick and wood structures crowded...


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New York City's Great Fire of 1835 was a firefighter's nightmare that ignited a political crisis and helped modernize the fire department.

In the early 1800s, New York then confined to lower Manhattan Island south of 18th Street grew haphazardly. Rickety brick and wood structures crowded together on narrow passageways and residents relied on gas for light and coal fires for heat.

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Print courtesy of Eno Collection/Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/ The New York Public Library/Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
A colored lithograph of the Great Fire of 1835. At center with his arms raised is Foreman Zophar Mills. To his right in a white helmet is Chief Engineer James Gulick.

On the freezing cold night of Dec. 16, this deadly combination sparked a blaze that eventually consumed 21 blocks and almost 700 buildings. Around 9 o'clock the contents of a ruptures gas pipe came into contact with a coal furnace in the dry goods shop of Comstock & Andrews at 25 Merchant St., an alley one block from Wall Street.

Then, as now, the city's business district centered on Wall Street. Located near the bustling wharves and docks, this wealthy neighborhood was home to such landmark institutions as the Post Office and the ornate Merchants Exchange, site of the stock market.

Peter A. Holmes, an insurance company watchman, first discovered the blaze. Investigating, he "found the whole interior of the building in flames from cellar to roof." Caches of whale oil and turpentine stored in adjacent shops hastened the fire's spread.

Moments later, businessman Philip Hone found a situation that "exceeded all description; the progress of the flames, like flashes of lightening, communicated in every direction, and a few minutes sufficed to level the lofty edifices on every side" of the street.

As the fire slashed toward the East River, the city's 1,500 volunteer firemen assembled at their stations and pulled their cumbersome hand pumpers through panic-choked streets toward the scene. There they found a stubborn inferno that was impossible to control, since the crippling cold froze their hoses and paralyzed their equipment.

A strong gale fueled the flames as explosions rained debris onto the streets. The New York Transcript described "walls tumbling to the ground, and the firemen, worn out from their exertions and almost discouraged from further efforts, vainly striving to make head against the flames, which seemed to mock all human skill and power."

Residents feared that the fire would level Manhattan and spread to Brooklyn. The water shortage, along with primitive communications, dangerous conditions and a lack of relief, took its toll on the exhausted volunteers.

Still, not all was lost. Witnesses credited legendary Foreman Zophar Mills and the men of Eagle Engine Company 13 with containing the blaze's western flank. After the roof of the Tontine Coffee House ignited, Mill's troops tried to douse the blaze from the street but could not reach. The company then piled up tables and barrels in the street, climbed the makeshift lift and extinguished the fire.

Even with this victory, four hours after the initial spark the New York Evening Post reported that "there is no knowing where the flames will be stayed ... the hose of many of the engines are frozen and useless ... The scene grows worse and worse."

12_97_newyork2.jpg
Print courtesy of Print Collection/Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs/ The New York Public Library/Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
A view of the Great Fire of 1835, from an 1836 print.

Circumstances became so desperate that Chief Engineer James Gulick and Mayor Lawrence Cornelius decided to save the city by destroying it. At 3 A.M. they dispatched a group of men to fetch gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in order to blow up buildings in the fire's path.

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