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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Chaos swirled about the firemen as they battled into the morning. Shop owners scrambled to rescue whatever they could and hired men on the spot to pile goods into the streets, which attracted mobs of looters. Constables chased thieves through the rubble, rounding up about 400 suspected lawbreakers. Vigilantes hung an accused arsonist from a lamppost and the mayor called out the militia to maintain order.

The Great Fire raged through the morning and burned itself out by 3 o'clock the following afternoon with the help of several explosions engineered by Gulick and assistants to arrest the fire's spread.

Units from Jersey City and Newark, NJ, and even Philadelphia arrived to wet down the ruins. A week later the Transcript reported that Philadelphia's bravest, "those gallant and generous fellows," were "escorted to the wharf by a great number of our citizens, who gave them three loud and hearty cheers."

Remarkably, only two people died in the disaster, which exposed the consequences of unchecked growth. Property losses approached $40 million, an enormous sum in those days and aid poured in from across the region.

The blaze also marked the beginning of the end of the city's volunteer fire corps. Posing as the people's protectors, politicians immediately tightened building codes, mandated wider streets and criticized the firemen's performance during the tragedy.

Assistant Alderman Henry Townsend called the department a "weak and inefficient body, incapable of performing its duties, and in a state of almost entire disorganization." In part, Gulick fell victim to the Council's political designs. Democrats controlled the city government and Gulick, an avowed Whig who commanded legions of influential voters, was a thorn in the party's paw.

As rumors circulated that the Common Council sought Gulick's removal, firemen defended their honor by holding meetings and issuing press releases. A Christmas Eve assembly attended by engineers, foremen and assistants issued a proclamation to refute the "many slanderous and illiberal remarks which have been made, in reference to the late fire."

Upon arriving at the scene, which "baffled description," the men realized they had been "called upon to perform a series of laborious duties unparalleled in the annals of our department, and unknown to those of any other in our country." The firefighters tried their best to conquer the flames, which progressed with "dreadful rapidity."

Clearly stung by the attacks, the department's leaders offered to resign. "Rather than longer submit to the many illiberal, cruel and ungenerous remark with which we have been assailed during the past few days," they wrote, "we would rather forego the privilege attendant upon our station, and sacrifice forever the laborious duties which for many years many of us have been engaged in."

Two of the city's six daily newspapers lines up behind the volunteers. A Transcript editorial praised the men as "daring, intrepid and active fellows ... combating against difficulties which it was utterly impossible they could surmount."

The New York Commercial Advertiser commented that "never, upon any occasion, when danger and consternation surrounded them upon every hand, have they displayed more cool and discriminating judgement than upon that memorable night, in which they felt ... a weight of responsibility which can only be known by those that watched the anxiety which ... marked their countenances as they realized the fallacy of their exertions to avoid the ruin that was inevitable."

By May 1836, however, nothing could sway the Mayor's Committee on Fire and Water. When word of Gulick's ouster reached the city's fire stations, 800 men marched on City Hall and resigned en masse. Those who remained refused to answer alarms until the council replaced Gulick's successor, John Ryker Jr. One fire company's ledger referred to Ryker's appointment as an act "contrary to the wishes of a great Majority of the Acting members of the department and the reasons given for the removal of Ja. Gulick and the charges preferred against him we consider but lame excuses and malignant falsehoods."

Eventually, Ryker was relieved of his post, which still did not satisfy the men. The department displayed its disgust for city officials by transforming into a formidable political force that elected Gulick to the office of City Register by a landslide. Victory celebrations included a mile-long torchlight parade down Broadway.