Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 14, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



History of Some of the Great conflagrations that have Devastated New York. -- The Alleged Incendiary Slave Plots of 1741 and 1796. -- The Revolutionary Struggle and the Attempts to Burn Down the City. -- Disastrous Fire of 1811. -- A sailor's Gallant Deed.-- The Old Jail Bell and its History.

The great calamities that have befallen New York have been its destructive fires. Within the comparatively brief space of one hundred years she had suffered more from the "devouring element" than any city in the world. The rapidity with which these striking events succeeded each other is remarkable. The years 1741, 1776, 1778, 1804, 1811, 1835, 1839, and 1845 are in the history of the city memorable for the ruin and misery occasioned by might conflagrations. In the intervals innumerable other fires had occurred, some of them resulting in loss of life and great destruction of property, but those of the years just mentioned surpass all others in their extent, intensity, and far-reaching effects. But the frequent recurrence and remarkable destructiveness of these fires had no reflection upon the zeal and courage of the noble men who had volunteered to fight the flames. That gallant body had only means and unscientific appliances to help them in their arduous labors. All that brave and watchful men could do they did, and mortal men could do no more.

With the exception of Constantinople New York has, perhaps, suffered more frequently from conflagrations than any city in the two worlds. Hamilton said I his time that one could not be twenty-four hours in New York without hearing an alarm of fire. This observation was repeated by a writer who published a small work in 1837, called "A Glance at New York," who added that one alarm a day would be a small average, and that it would be nearer to truth to say that the firemen of new York were called out five hundred times a year--a statement which all familiar with New York at that time have corroborated. Many of these were undoubtedly false alarms, raised by boys for the pleasure of running after the engines. The fire of London in 1666 was bigger than anything this city has seen. Four hundred and thirty-six acres were laid waste, eighty-nine churches destroyed, with thirteen thousand two hundred houses, leaving two hundred thousand people temporarily without homes. The fire of Hamburg in 1842 burned sixty-one streets, containing one thousand seven hundred and forty-seven houses. The Chicago fire laid waste over five acres, and left one hundred thousand of her citizens homeless. But if the frequency of fire in the city, the magnitude of some of them, and the amount of property destroyed, be collectively considered, it will be seen that New York, perhaps, has suffered more heavily from this kind of calamity than any other city of modern times. Still these conflagrations have in the end proved a great benefit by causing more spacious and elegant edifices to arise, phoenix-like, out of their ashes.

The first great fire; or rather series of fires, in 1741 was said to be the work of negro slaves. Dr. John Gilmary Shea in 1862 published a paper on the subject, carefully analyzing the evidence for and against the alleged plot. Slavery was almost coeval with the colonization of this city, says Dr. Shea. When the fort was begun in 1625, and colonization properly commenced, the Dutch West India Company immediately promised to each Patroon "twelve black men and women out of the prizes in which negroes shall be found." The negroes taken on a enemy's ship were thus sold here as slaves, irrespective of their former condition. Indians were similarly treated. Slaves were also brought in directly from Angola and other parts of Africa, and indirectly through the Ditch West India Islands. Thus the element of negro slavery was introduced and extended during the Dutch rule. Fort Amsterdam itself, that cradle of New York, was finally completed by the labor of negro slaves, whose moral condition was utterly ignored. When the English came they accepted slavery, and gave it the sanction of municipal law.

As time rolled on the laws bore heavily upon the poor negro, and too often the slaves were goaded to commit deeds of violence. Fearful was the retribution. Two slaves of William Hallett--an Indian man and negro woman--of Newtown, Long Island, in 1707 murdered their master, his wife, and their five children, in revenge for begin deprived of certain privilege. The woman was burned, the man was suspended in gibbets and placed astride a sharp iron, in which condition he lived some time, and in a state of delirium which ensued, believing himself to be on horseback, would urge forward his supposed animal with the frightful impetuosity of a maniac, while the blood oozing from his lacerated flesh streamed from his feet to the ground.

A conspiracy followed, terrible scenes of bloodshed ensued, and severer laws were enacted. In 1741 the city was in a state of panic. The midnight sky was reddened with the flames of the incendiary, and no man's property seemed safe from the torch of the conspirator. The city contained about eleven thousand inhabitants, and of these about one-fourth were negroes. In those days, the governor (Lieutenant-Governor Clarke, an Englishman) resided in Fort George, which stood on an eminence south of Bowling Green. In this fort, stood a church, built by Governor Kieft, the king's house, barracks, etc. The church was of stone, but covered with a shingle roof. On the eighteenth of March, about one o'clock in the day, a fire broke out in this roof, and as the wind was high the flames spread rapidly. The fire bell rang out, and thousands flocked to the scene. Just ten years before the new fire engines had been introduced and something like a fire department organized. These slow and unwieldy machines came lumbering to the spot, manned by firemen in civilian costumes as clumsy and uncouth as well could be devised to prevent freedom of limb and muscle. The bucket lines were formed, but not too rapidly, and the contents of the buckets half spilled before reaching the engine. And still the flames mounted high. The ships in the harbor thought the whole city was afire. Soon the church, the king's house, and other buildings in the fort were reduced to ashes. The flames spread beyond the fort, and the rest of the town was menaced, but the further progress of the fire was arrested. A few weeks after four or five fires occurred in different parts of the city, and then was heard the cry "The negroes are rising!"

Everywhere the slaves were hurried to jail, and a wild search was made for suspicious persons. Trials, executions, and bloody laws followed fast till the panic was allayed, and the city became sane and safe again. Four white people were hanged, fourteen negroes burned, eighteen executed, and seventy-one transported to the West Indies and sold.

The next great fire occurred in the stirring times of 1776, and is connected with the battle of Long Island. New York appears to have been a coveted prize for the British, and early in 1776 Howe dispatched General Clinton secretly to attack it. Dr. Benson J. Lossing, in his History of new York City, says that General Washington, suspecting New York to be Clinton's destination, send General Charles Lee, thither, and on the evacuation of Boston in March the commander-in-chief marched with nearly the whole of his army to New York, arriving here in the middle of April. He pushed forward the defenses of the city begun by General Lord Stirling. Fort George, on the site of Fort Amsterdam, was strengthened, numerous batteries were constructed on the shores of the Hudson and East Rivers, and lines of fortifications were built across the island from river to river not far from the city. Strong Fort Washington was finally built on the highest land on the island (now Washington Heights) and intrenchments were thrown up on Harlem Heights. In the summer Washington made his headquarters at Richmond Hill, then a country retreat at the (present) junction of Charlton and Varick Streets.

On the 10th of July copies of the Declaration of Independence were received in New York. The army was drawn up in hollow squares by brigades, and in that position the important document was read to each brigade. That night soldiers and citizens joined in pulling down the equestrian statue of King George, which certain tories had caused to be set up in the Bowling Green only six years before. They dragged the leaden image through the streets and broke it in pieces. Some of it was taken to Connecticut and moulded into bullets.

At the close of June, 1776, a British fleet arrived at Sandy Hook with General Howe's army, which was landed on Staten Island. After the landing they were joined by forces under Sir Henry Clinton, who had been repulsed in an attack upon Charleston, S. C. Hessians (foreign mercenaries hired by the British Government) also came, and late in August the British force on Staten Island and on the ships was more then twenty-five thousand in number. On the twenty-fifth of August over ten thousand of these had landed on the western end of Long Island, prepared to attempt the capture of New York. Washington, whose army was then about seventeen thousand strong, had caused fortifications to be constructed at Brooklyn, and he sent over a greater part of his forces to confront the invaders. The battle of Long Island ensued and was disastrous to the Americans. Washington skillfully conducted the remainder (not killed or captured) in a retreat across the East River, under cover of a fog, to New York, and thence to Harlem Heights at the northern end of the island. The British troops followed tardily, crossed the East River at Kip's Bay, and after a sharp battle on Harlem Plains took possession of the city of New York, or what was left of it.

The British had pitched their tents near the city, intending to enter the next morning and were in repose. The whole camp was sunk in sleep, and only the sentinels were awake, pacing their weary rounds. Suddenly, at midnight, arrows of lurid flame shot heavenward from the lower part of town. The city seemed to be on fire. Afterwards it was asserted that the Americans had formed a scheme to burn down New York rather than let it fall into the hands of the English enemy. At any rate, a conflagration was started, accidentally or designedly, at the foot of Broad Street. There were few citizens able or disposed to fight the flames, for most of the inhabitants had fled the town. In the space of a few hours five hundred buildings were destroyed. The soldiers and sailors from the vessels in the river were ordered ashore, and they succeeded in staying the flames before they reached Wall Street. It was General Greene who had simply urged the destruction of the city by fire--a measure afterwards so effectively adopted by Count Rostopehin, Governor of Moscow, to arrest the career of Napoleon. General Greene's idea was to deprive the British of the advantage of having their winter quarters established in New York. His reasons for this measure were sound, says W. L. Stone in his History of New York, and ought, doubtless, to have been adopted. Washington was also believed to have been of the same opinion, especially as two thirds of the property which it was proposed to destroy belonged to undisguised loyalists. But Congress would not allow the sacrifice, and on the fifteenth of September the city was in full possession of the English.

At this time, according to Hugh Gaine, in his Universal Register for 1787, New York contained about four thousand two hundred houses and thirty thousand inhabitants. It would seem as if the idea of firing the city--though given up by Washington and Greene--was still cherished by some of the residents of the city. Scarcely had the British fairly taken possession, when, on the night of the Twentieth of September (only six days after they had marched in) a terrific fire broke out which was not subdued until one thousand houses, or about one fourth of the city, were reduced to ashes. Although the value of the property destroyed does not discount that lost sixty years after in the Great Fire of 1835, yet it will be seen that its ravages were of far greater extent. The fire was first discovered in a low dram-shop in Whitehall Slip, called the "Fighting Cocks," tenanted by abandoned men and women. In a few minutes afterward flames were seen to break forth from several other buildings, lying in different directions, at the same instant. For some time previous the weather had been dry, and at the moment a brisk southerly wind prevailing, and the buildings being of wood and covered with shingles, the flames soon caught the neighboring houses and spread with inconceivable rapidity. The fire swept up Broad and Beaver Streets to Broadway and thence t onward, consuming all that portion of the town lying on the North River, until the flames were stopped by the grounds of King's (Columbia) College at Mortkill Street, now Barclay. St. Paul's Church was, at one time, in great danger. Fortunately, however, the roof was flat with a balustrade on the eaves. Taking advantage of this circumstance, a number of citizens ascended to the balustrade and extinguished the flakes of fire as they fell on the roof. Trinity Church, with the Lutheran chapel, on the opposite corner of Rector Street, was also destroyed. The Rev. Dr. Inglis was the rector of Trinity, and this sacred edifice, his parsonage and the Charity School (two large buildings) were consumed, entailing a loss of church property to the value of twenty-five thousand pounds. The organ of Trinity alone cost eight hundred and fifty pounds. "The ruins," says Dunlop (who wandered over the scene at the close of the war)," on the southeast side of the town were converted into dwelling places by using the chimneys and parts of walls which wre firm, and adding pieces of spars with old canvas from the ships, forming hovels--part hut and part tent." This was called Canvas Town, and there the vilest of the army and Tory refugees congregated.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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