Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 15, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

In connection with this fire we meet with the name of Mr. James Wallack, the father of the famous actor, Mr.Lester Wallack. His loss was estimated at twenty-five thousand dollars-no insurance. The theater was owned by Messrs. Ayman & Co., and O. Mauran, and was leased to Mr. Wallack. The building was valued at sixty thousand dollars and insured for thirty thousand dollars. The French church was a splendid edifice of white marble, the portico in front supported by very large granite pillars. It was erected in 1822, and cost about eighty thousand dollars. The fine organ and most of the furniture were saved, but very much damaged. There was an insurance of twenty-four thousand dollars. Of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Rev. J. Harkness, pastor, only the walls remained. It was insured for ten thousand dollars. The Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church was built in 1820, and cost eighteen thousand dollars. It was insured to the full amount of its value. Numerous other buildings, dwelling houses, etc., were more or less injured--some nearly destroyed.

The above fire was destructive enough, but the next one in the month of October was a million dollar calamity. On October 5, at 11:45 P M., the secretary of an engine company writes: "Fire corner of Eldridge and Broome; engine did not roll owing to her being out of order." An hour and a quarter after, a fire assumed alarming proportions broke out in the fur store of Halsey & Co., in Water Street, near Fulton. The wind was blowing fresh at the time, and the flames swept through Water Street and Burling Slip, Pearl and Fletcher Streets. The United States Hotel (which previous to that time had been called Holt's) was in imminent danger. It was saved by placing wet blankets in each window fronting the fire. It was a terrible night for the Department whose energies were taxed to the utmost. Whole blocks were swept away, and the destruction of property was enormous. For eight hours the fire lasted, illuminating the whole city. This great conflagration was considered to be second only to that of 1835. Two-thirds of the block bounded by Water Street, Burling Slip and Fletcher Street, together with several new stores in Water Street, between Burling Slip and Fletcher Street, and two or three buildings in Fletcher Street, one of which was occupied by John T. Hall, a member of a fire company, were consumed.

The night of January 30, 1840, was an extremely busy one for the firemen. From seven o'clock in the evening until the dawn of the following morning they had scarcely any respite from their labors, one alarm succeeding another with remarkable rapidity. For the few months preceding fires had been singularly numerous, and the sound of the fire bell had fallen with regular and mournful cadence upon the tired ears of the firemen. It seemed as though the destroying angel had been sent abroad. On this night the first conflagration broke out at 7:15 P. M. in Front Street near Broad Street, destroying a grocery. Then a fire half consumed Forker & Co., ship-chandlery store in South, near Dover Street. There were other alarms besides. The South Street fire had not been entirely subdued, and at three o'clock in the morning, it broke out afresh. The flames communicated to the immense tea-store of Thomas H. Smith and to five other stores. Smith's was occupied as a public store. One of the five stores was the extensive one of J. J. Hix. They were all destroyed. The public store covered an area fifty by two hundred feet. The total loss was estimated at over one million dollars.

The tenderest expressions of sympathy from firemen were called forth by the death of two of their comrades on April 15, 1840. Assistant Engineer James S. Wells and James Glasgow, a member of Hose Company No. 15, were killed by the falling of a wall at a fire in Eldridge Street. A meeting of engineers, foremen and assistants was held at Fireman's Hall on the sixteenth, upon the call of Chief Engineer Anderson. Mr. Anderson proposed a funeral programme, which was approved, and on the motion of Mr. Kane, Colonel Thomas F. Peers, was appointed marshal for the occasion, with the following aids: Owen W. Brennan, John Carland, John T. Rollins, George F. Ramppen, and Joseph W. Long. On motion of Mr. Suydam, Daniel R. Suydam, Carlisle Norwood and Edward Brown were appointed a committee to draft resolutions of sympathy, and reported the following:

Resolved. That in the dispensation of the all-ruling Providence by which Messrs. James S. Wells and James Glasgow have met with a sudden death, we have to deplore the loss of two valuable members of the Department--men whose private virtues and strict integrity had endeared them to all, and whose decease has left a blank in their families which cannot be filled.

Resolved. That this Department do sympathize deeply with the relatives of the deceased of this mournful event, and that they will testify the regret which they feel by attending in a body the funeral to-morrow (Thursday) afternoon, and by wearing crepe on the left arm for thirty days.

Resolved. That a copy of the foregoing resolutions be forwarded to the  families of the deceased, signed by the officers of the meeting and published.

May the same all-wise and beneficent Providence sustain the widow and fatherless in their affliction. The Fire Department of Brooklyn and Williamsburg were invited to attend the funeral. The pall-bearers were:

James Gulick
John Ryker, Jr.
Michael O'Connor
Halsey R. Mead
Allen J. Rollie
Daniel C. Selleck
William P. Wallace
Elijah T. Lewis

On the following day the various companies met in Canal Street. The line was formed on the north side of the street, the right resting on Hudson Street. Engine, Hook and Ladder, Hose, and Hydrant Companies No. 1 together constituted the base or right of the line; Engine, Hook and Ladder, Hose, and hydrant companies of No. 2 were next, and in the same order to the left; Engine Company No. 49 was on the extreme left.

In May, 1841, there were several extensive fires. On the seventh five five-story warehouses were destroyed in Pearl and Water Streets. On the nineteenth four hundred thousand dollars' worth of property was destroyed in buildings whose site had been swept by the fire of 1835.

But on the twenty-ninth a still more notable fire occurred. The new national theater had been in existence only two years since its first destruction in 1839, when it again went down before the devouring element--it destruction this time being the work of incendiaries. The manager was Mr. Burton, his stage manager, Mr. Wemyss. When these gentlemen entered the house about five o'clock (it was Saturday), they were met by one of the company, Mr. Okie, who said that he thought he smelt fire. Investigation proved the accuracy of his surmise. In the prompter's box fire was found in three places, and in the pit ticket office a quantity of spirits of turpentine was discovered to have been thrown into a box of loose rubbish, and the office on fire in two places. The bottom of the read door of the office was also found burning. These were scarcely extinguished when Mr. Russell, the treasurer, and his assistant, Mr. Glessig, found a fire had been started under the staircase leading from the rear of the box office to the suite of apartments above, occupied by Mr. Russell and his family. It was only with the greatest difficulty that this conflagration was extinguished. But this was not all. In a room in the second story adjacent to Mr. Russell's rooms two other fires were found burning; spirits of turpentine had been strewn over a pile of theater tickets, and in another part of the room manuscript music and other papers were on fire. These fires having been extinguished a roll of paper thrown from an upper story window into Leonard Street was found to contain a quantity of friction matches. Below was the Turkish Saloon, where a box of matches of a like kind were found. It was clear that an attempt had been made to fire the saloon also, and that there was more than one incendiary. Notwithstanding his alarming discovery Mr. Burton decided to let the performance go on.

At the close a thorough search was made of the premises, and nothing suspicious was found. At 3:30 A. M., Mr. Russell went to bed. He could not sleep, however, and at six o'clock arose, went to the stage door in the rear, and stood talking to the private watchman. In a few minutes, to the treasurer's astonishment, flames burst from different parts of the building, and with amazing rapidity they spread. Indeed Mrs. Russell had a narrow escape for her life. Her husband dashed to her room, rolled her up in the bedclothes, and with difficulty got her out of the burning building. The walls of the theater proved to be of the flimsiest, and in a short time the rear wall and the side wall on Franklin Street both gave way. It was a miracle that numbers were not crushed to death in the adjoining houses. Engineer John T. Rollins, who lived close by the theater, was on the spot in a few moments. He went inside, and found the stage blazing, and it was his opinion that the fire had been started half an hour before. Chief Engineer Cornelius V. Anderson said that within fifteen minutes of its discovery he saw the fire bursting through, at the back of the theater. He warned all the people living in the rear to clear out, for he noticed the miserable walls, unable to bear the weight of the roof, bulging and cracking everywhere. But the Chief engineer's warning was too late in one instance. In Franklin Street was a notorious house, kept by Julia Brown, a woman remarkable for her good looks. She escaped, but one of her unfortunate boarders, a woman, was killed by the falling wall. Next day her body was discovered by Zophar Mills. Mr. Burton had, but a few day before, brought his valuable wardrobe from Philadelphia, and it was lost. Miss Cushman, the celebrated tragedienne, who was playing here, and Messrs. Shaw and Howard also lost heavily. Among the adjoining edifices injured or partly burned were the French Protestant Episcopal Church, the Dutch Reformed Church, in Franklin Street, and the African Church on the corner of Leonard and Church Streets, opposite the playhouse. The work of destruction lasted only an hour.

On March 31, 1842, there were three fires--one of great magnitude. The whole of two large blocks of dwellings, including at least one hundred houses, was laid in ruins. At least two hundred and fifty families were rendered homeless. The fire originated in a two-story house, occupied as a grocery and dwelling. At least forty or fifty of the houses were worth from three thousand to four thousand dollars each, the aggregate being about three hundred thousand dollars, and the furniture destroyed being worth twenty or thirty thousand dollars. On May 31 J. Harker & Bros., Nos. 80 and 82 Cliff Street, publishers, lost one hundred thousand dollars in a fire.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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