Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 15, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



Accidents to Firemen. -- Two Hundred Families Rendered Homeless. -- The Calamity at Niblo's Old Theater and Burning of the New. -- the Bowery Theater in Flames Three times. -- An Old Play Bill. -- Revolt of the Firemen on Account of Chief Gulick. -- Introduction of Politics. -- Destruction of the Old National Theater. -- A scene of Magnificence and Splendor. -- A Million Dollar Conflagration in Water Street.

On April 30, 1833, at eleven o'clock at night, a destructive fire began in the large stable of Kipp & Brown, corner of Hudson and Bank Streets, in that part of the city then called Greenwich Village, and which old newspapers describe as being two miles form Wall Street. The contents of the stables were very combustible, and large flakes of fire and burning shingles fell upon the buildings adjoining which caught almost immediately. The wind was from the eastward, and its strength helped to spread the flames. In the stables were forty-seven horses, and their agonizing cries were dreadful to hear. It was impossible to save them, they were all burned, and next morning they were found lying in rows, side by side, just as they had stood in their stalls. The population in that part of the city was very dense, very many were foreigners, and few were above comfortable circumstances. The houses were generally two stories, many of them with brick fronts. In less then twenty minutes the block bounded by Hudson, Bank, Greenwich, and Hammond Streets, and containing sixty or seventy dwellings, was destroyed. One hundred and fifty or two hundred families were rendered homeless. The scene of confusion an consternation was almost indescribable. A hundred or more families who had removed their furniture to places they supposed by them to be secure were seen flying in every direction before the fury of the all-devouring element. In many instances furniture, after being removed, was destroyed by fire. Through the dense cloud of smoke and burning cinders children half naked were to be seen running to and fro, crying for their parents, and parents in despair shrieking the names of their children. Among those who exerted themselves to arrest the progress of the flames were Alderman Murray, Whiting, Robinson, and Peters, who remained on the ground till morning. The fire was said to have been caused by a woman to revenge herself on a man who had slighted her. The loss was about one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

On September 5, 1833, on the way to a fire, Engine No. 41 and Engine No. 37 were running a race with the characteristic emulation of the day. It was almost neck-and-neck affair, and along the route hundreds of persons ran cheering the contestants. No. 41 was just about passing its rival, when a horse and wagon ran into the head of the rope. It was at a corner around which the wagon was coming. The men, taken unaware, let go third hold of the rope, and several were thrown down, and among them Mr. Sutton. Mr. Sutton was struck by the king-bolt of the engine and dragged some distance. This put a stop to the race, and that gentleman was picked up much injured. A more serious event happened on March 7, 1834. A fire broke out in the store of Maitland, Kennedy & Co., at front and Depeyster Streets, at which M r. John Knapp, of engine No. 32, was killed. The firemen were doing good work, and though it was seen that the building would be gutted, the men had the satisfaction of knowing that they were confining the fire to that building. Mr. Knapp was standing in the doorway playing on the flames with the pipe which he held. His comrades suddenly noticed the front wall bulging and gave the alarm. Knapp dropped the pipe to effect his escape, and before he had got a few steps from the building he was overwhelmed by the falling torrent of bricks. Bruised, mutilated, disfigured, Mr. Knapp was taken from under the mass, but life was extinct. The dismay among the men of No. 32 was inexpressible. Placing their dead comrade upon their engine, they detached their hose and sorrowfully bore the body home.

A few months subsequent to this, on July 1, another calamity occurred. We quote the details from the minutes of Engine Company No. 13: This morning, about a quarter before three A.M., a fire was discovered in the store of Haydock, Clay & Co., 273 Pearl Street. The entire stock of goods was destroyed and also the building. Toward the latter part of the fire an accident happened which cast a gloom over the happiness of a large and highly respectable body of young men belonging to the Fire Department---the death of Messrs. Eugene Underhill and F. A. Ward, both members of this company. They died in the honorable and fearless discharge of their duty. What made their sudden death more deeply felt was that there seemed an unusual flow of spirits among the company who were almost to a man witnesses of the scene and standing near the building when the wall fell, and many of them had been in the building during the fire and almost by a miracle escaped. On Wednesday, second instant, they were followed to the grave by a large concourse of citizens. The procession started from Broadway (Hospital) down Beekman Street to Pearl Street, when the procession halted to receive the remains of Mr. Ward, then moved up Madison to Market, up Market to Henry Street, where the procession then halted again to receive the remains of Mr. Ward, then moved up Madison to Market, up Market to Henry Street, where the procession then halted again to receive the remains of Mr. Underhill.




With the Fire Department Banner, Members of the New York and Brooklyn Fire Department with Banners placed at Equal Distance in the procession. Then the Hearse containing the Body of Mr. Ward.

Supported by Eight Pall Bearers in the following order:


The Friends and Relations of the Deceased


The Friends and Relatives of Mr. Underhill than the Members and Volunteers of our Company Followed by the Members of No. 10.

"The procession moved up Henry Street to Gouverneur Street, through Gouverneur Street to Grand, down Grand to Broadway, up Broadway to Houston Street, through Houston to Varick Street to the burying-ground. The procession then opened from the front so as to let the left of the line countermarch into the yard,

"They were buried as they were found, Side by Side. One Monument will Cover the Remains of those two Young Men who were Cut off in the prime of life--The Dawn of Manhood. Peace to their Ashes."

And now we come to one of the most memorable years in the fire history of New York--1835. To that great conflagration, so sweeping and so dire in its results, we feel it necessary to devote special chapters which follow this one. It was a year in which a fire fiend seemed to have taken possession of the city. We will mention here only one or two fires, which, though large, were yet dwarfed by the terrible calamity of December 16. On June 8 no less then two hundred families (as in 1833) were rendered homeless by a fire that broke out, in the rear of 209 Elizabeth Street. It was a fearful night for that thickly populated district. Every building on the block bounded by Prince, Mott, Elizabeth, and Houston Streets was swept away by the flames. Women and children fled screaming from the roaring element, and considering the little army that had been housed in the burning buildings, it was marvelous how any escaped with their lives. The firemen behaved splendidly in getting these people safely away.

On September 17, Niblo's Garden had a narrow escape. For a neighbor it had a fireworks manufactory. About one o'clock in the afternoon the spontaneous combustion of some articles took place. Three or four explosions in rapid succession alarmed every one in the locality, and the firemen were called. Before they reached the scene, however, the fire had spread to Niblo's Garden, damaged it to the extent of fifteen thousand dollars. But a fatality was a still sadder result of the conflagration. The persons employed in the theater, and who were preparing for the evening performance, had barely time to escape before the building was enveloped in flames. A colored boy named Isaac Freeman was slow in getting out. In the upper part of the building two firemen were fighting the conflagration. One was Fire Warden Purdy, Jr., of the Tenth Ward (a son of Alderman Purdy), and the other W. Harris, of No. 2 Company. Volumes of thick black smoke accompanied by tongues of fire suddenly rolled around them. The firemen called to Freeman to get on his knees and crawl along with them. But Freeman was almost instantly suffocated, and Purdy and Harris then made a dash thorough the flames and with difficulty got through a window. They crawled along the gutters, and at last, amid the congratulatory shouts of the crowd, succeeded in reaching a ladder. Purdy's left hand was badly burned and his hair and face scorched. Harris escaped without injury. The fire did not prevent a concert taking place next night as announced. It was Mons. Gillaud's Benefit Concert, at which Signorina Albina Stella, Mrs. Franklin, Signor Montressor, and other well-known artists of the day assisted. The loss was about fifteen thousand dollars.

In early years a circus called the "Stadium" was established don the northeasterly corner of Broadway and Prince Street. These premises were purchased when Bayard's farm was sold off in lots by Mr. Van Rensselaer, and occupied the site of the Metropolitan Hotel and Niblo's Garden. Shortly after the war of 1812 the inclosure was used as a place for drilling militia officers who were cited to appear at the "Stadium" for drill. The circus edifice was surrounded by a high fence, the entrance being on Prince Street. Afterwards two brick buildings were erected on Broadway, one of which was for some time occupied by James Fenimore Cooper, the novelist. William Niblo, previously proprietor of the Bank Coffee House in Pine Street, removed to this locality in the year 1828, and established a restaurant and public garden. In the center of the garden was still remaining the old circus building, which was devoted by Mr. Niblo to exhibitions of theatrical performances of a gay and attractive character, which soon attained such popularity as to induce him to erect a building of more pretensions as a theater. This edifice was constructed even with a line of Broadway, but having a blank face on that street, the entrance being from within the garden. The latter was approached from Broadway. The interior of the garden was spacious and adorned with shrubbery, and walks lighted up with festoons of lamps. This view shows the condition of the Niblo's Garden before the erection of the theater on Broadway at present.

Five days afterward the famous Bowery Theater was burned. This unfortunate playhouse has had many such experiences. One of the first was on November 20, 1826, and was in consequence of a flaw in a gas pipe. The 1826 fire is already described. The accident of 1826 occurred about 5 P. M. The gas must have been escaping some time as the moment a lamp was lighted the flames ran up tot he gallery. They burned through the gallery in the saloon, but fortunately no great damage was done. The fire was extinguished by buckets only, without the aid of an engine. On September 22, 1835, however, it was entirely destroyed. The fire began, singularly enough, about the same hour, 5 P. M. In a short time, notwithstanding the efforts of the Fire Department, the edifice was a total loss. Engine Company No. 26 was indefatigable amid the falling timbers. One of its members, George Mills, had his leg crushed by a falling beam, and it was feared that he would lose the limb. Mr. J. T. Parsons, in the employ of Messrs. Benedict and Benedict, of Wall Street, was also injured by a beam which fell on his head. An inventive genius of the time, Matthew Carey (at that date a very old man), had suggested the plan of covering adjacent buildings, while a fire was in progress, with wet carpets, blankets, etc., a plan which was the forerunner of the present method of the Fire Insurance Patrol. His scheme was tested at this fire, and it was said, proved eminently successful I n saving property. Forty-five minutes after the outbreak the roof and part of the rear wall fell in. Half an hour afterwards the front wall came down, injuring the persons named above and several others. One hundred fifty thousand dollars were swallowed up. The building and lot were owned by Hamblin, Hamilton and Gouverneur. Hamblin was the sole owner of the scenery, properties, wardrobe, etc. Miss Medinas, one of the actresses, lost twenty thousand dollars, which included manuscript copies of "Norman Leslie," "Rienzl," "Pompeii," and Lafitte." Mr. Gates, an actor, lost five hundred dollars. On the previous evening, Miss Waring, an actress, had met with a very serious accident. During the performance, one of her legs was fractured. Nevertheless, it was decided that this fire was a fortunate occurrence for the city. The theater had stood in the way of opening Canal Street, and it was thought that the destruction of the large and expensive edifice would permit the proposed plant to go into execution. The theater was rebuilt on an enlarged scale--indeed, made the largest edifice in the city, but it met the same fate in the following year, and the occurrence is described further on.

The city had only a brief respite before it experienced another series of memorable fires. A notable circumstance occurred on February 18, 1836. The extensive printing and book manufacturing establishment in Mulberry Street, widely known as the Methodist book Concern, was burned. Nothing of value could be rescued except the account books of the Christian Advocate and Journal. In the morning fragments of burnt books were found on Long Island. As in 1825, the night was intensely cold, and the hydrants frozen, so that it was impossible to procure water. The singular circumstances was that one of the fragments found on Long Island was a charred leaf of the bible, containing the sixty-fourth chapter of Isaiah. Very little of the leaf was legible, except the eleventh verse of that chapter, which reads: "Our holy and our beautiful house, where our fathers praised thee, is burned up with fire, and all our pleasant things are laid waste." This discovery occasioned much comment at the time. The loss of this establishment and its valuable presses and stereotype plates was severely felt by the Methodist Episcopal denomination, the accumulation being the result of forty years of persevering industry, and the calamity occurring at a most unfavorable time, the Great fire of '35 having rendered bankrupt many of the insurance offices.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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