History of the Fire Department of the City of New York

Chapter 16, Part I

By Holice and Debbie

CHAPTER XVI

OLD VOLUNTEERS FIGHTING FIRE.

More Fires of the Olden Times. -- A Terrible Snow Storm and Burning of the Tribune Building. -- The Bowery Theater Destroyed for the Fourth Time. -- The Awful Fire of 1845. -- Thrilling Incidents. -- Niblo's Garden in Flames. -- The Fearful Hague Street Disaster. -- The Harper's Fire. -- The Park Street Theater.

A terrible snow storm swept over new York on February 4, 1845, and the cold was intense. At four o'clock on the morning of February 5, the office of the New York Tribune, occupying the corner lots Nos. 158 and 160 Nassau Street, was destroyed by fire. A boy had lighted a stove, and in half an hour the apartment was in a blaze. The fire engines were at a disadvantage in this great storm. The streets were almost impassable; some of the machines could not gt out of their stations at all, and those that did could scarcely be dragged through the streets. Some of the fire hydrants were found to be frozen and had to be broken open with axes. Hence it was no wonder the Tribune building and the adjoining structure on the corner of Spruce and Nassau were entirely destroyed in a short time. There were some narrow escapes. One of the proprietors, Mr. Graham, and a clerk wre asleep in the second story, and when aroused found the door and stairway afire and egress that way cut off. They saved themselves only by jumping from the window. The compositors in the fifth story and the pressmen in the basement got out with great difficulty. Tammany Hall was at one time in imminent danger. The rear part, connecting with the Tribune building, caught fire, but the firemen succeeded, by hard work, in extinguishing the flames. The publishers, Greeley & McElrath, publicly thanked the fire laddies for their labors. The office was temporarily located at No. 30 Ann Street (formerly the New World).

A few months after the Tribune fire came a greater conflagration--the total destruction, for the fourth time, of the ill-fated Bowery Theater. Indeed, this year (1845) is very remarkable for the number of disastrous fires which occurred in the city. The "new historical drama" of "Robin Hood, the Outlaw," was to have been played that evening (Friday, April 25), and Mr. Davenport, a popular actor of the period, was to have taken his benefit. As on previous occasions, the calamity was the work of a diabolical incendiary. The supposition is proved by the fact that the flames first proceeded from a vault filled with shavings under the carpenter's shop, to which there was access by a trap door. The carpenter's shop was on the south side of the theater, from which it was separated by an iron fire-proof door. It was about six o'clock when the flames were discovered, and before the fire-proof door could be closed they caught the scenery, and, like a flash, the whole house was ablaze. When the engines arrived the theater was already doomed. The carpenters and actors had manfully struggled, but in vain, to save the wardrobes. Dense volumes of smoke drove them back. The firemen mainly directed their efforts to saving the block of three-story houses opposite, and succeeded after great exertions. At first, however, there was great danger of a wide-spreading conflagration. One of the greatest calamities feared was lest the gas-house next the theater should take fire and explode. Happily, however, the flames did not touch it. When the fire burst through the roof and windows of the playhouse the scene became one of mingled grandeur and terror. The roaring of the flames, the breaking of glass, the cracking of the burning rafters, the continuous thud, thud, of the well-manned engines, and the hoarse voices of the foremen as they gave the necessary directions, all combined to increase the excitement. In about half an hour the fire was at its height, blazing with fearful intensity. The glowing heat was almost unbearable, affecting the houses opposite; it was so intense, indeed, that those buildings were often concealed under a dense cloud of steam from the constant streams of water thrown on them by three engines. Soon the roof fell in and the fiery furnace sent forth a cloud of ignited particles, which spread to a great distance, and endangered the surrounding property. About a quarter before seven the peak of the rear wall on Elizabeth Street fell outward with a fearful crash, and several persons narrowly escaped death. About ten minutes later the north half of the end wall also fell, and five minutes later the remaining half. The wind being from the northeast the heat and main body of the flame were felt most on Elizabeth Street. As the flames burst forth from the front windows and caught the heavy cornice the whole interior was revealed to those on the roofs of the opposite houses, and the furniture of the saloon, the pictures, glasses, sofas, etc., could be distinctly seen as each became a prey to the spreading flames. When the heavy cornice in front fell many persons were standing on the steps and narrowly escaped death, but some wre slightly bruised. The houses on either side several times caught fire, and roofs of some of them were destroyed. The inmates threw their furniture out of the windows, and the scene became one of disaster and confusion. The house of Mr. Cox, on the north side of the theater in Elizabeth Street, was much injured. Several small tenements in this street were nearly a total wreck, and some of the inmates escaped with difficulty. One poor woman had barely time to snatch up her two children before her room was in a blaze. She forced her way through the flames and smoke into the street. The children were uninjured, but the mother was burned in several places.

Among the buildings very considerably damaged were the Bowery Hotel (Nos. 50 and 52), Shaw's Hotel, south of the theater in the Bowery, and the store of Mr. Cort, plumber. The loss of T. S. Hamblin and James R. Whiting was very heavy. Mr. Hamblin's loss in stock, stage appointments and wardrobe was about one hundred thousand dollars, and no insurance. The veteran manager was at his home in Franklin Street when his acting manager, Mr. Davenport, rushed into the house with the news of the conflagration.

"There goes the labors of seven years!" said Mr. Hamblin, sadly, as he reflected on the previous misfortunes that had befallen him. Then he brightened up in his characteristic, enterprising way, and exclaimed, "But we are not dead, yet! Boys!"

In the next month the city was again startled by a destructive conflagration. Fire was discovered on May 31 in the stables of peters & Palmer in Eighteenth Street, which were entirely consumed, with twenty horses. From thence the fire spread to a range of twelve two-story houses on Eighteenth Street to Sixth Avenue, and with the exception of two or three two-story brick houses on the corner of Sixth Avenue, crossing into Nineteenth Street, destroyed about a dozen dwellings on the south side and five or six on the north side, besides the roofs of six or eight brick dwellings; thence through to Twentieth Street the flames destroyed a large number of dwellings, nearly the whole of which were occupied by poor families, and some of whom had lost their all. The number of persons who were burned out was not less then four hundred. One hundred buildings in all were destroyed, and the loss was one hundred thousand dollars.

Not since 1835 had there been so calamitous a fire in the city as in the month of July of this year (1845). Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it was the most fearfully destructive fire in the annals of the Department, for thirty lives wre sacrificed on that terrible morning of July 19, and many person were injured. Over three hundred buildings were burned down, and more then ten million dollars' worth of property laid waste. The event is still fresh in the memory of many of our old citizens and firemen, and they still recollect the mourning that long characterized the city over the loss of so many estimable men and the injury to so many others. The fire broke out about 3 A. M. in the sperm oil distribution of J. L. Van Doren, No. 34 New Street, and soon spread to a chair factory adjoining. Chief Engineer Anderson and the Department were quickly at work, but in spite of their efforts the fire traveled with great rapidity, extending to Exchange Place, Broad Street, and finally to the large storage house of Crooker & Warren, on the latter street. This building, it seems, was stores with saltpetre; it had hardly been on fire ten minutes when it blew up, the shock breaking over a million panes of glass throughout the whole city, even up as high as Canal Street. Not a vestige of the edifice was left except the bricks, while six or seven of the adjoining buildings were partly demolished.

The explosion shook the city like an earthquake. It was felt in Jersey City and Brooklyn, while the report was plainly heard way out to Sandy Hook. Engine Company No. 22 was stationed directly in front of the ill-fated building, and had one stream on the fourth story. Garret B. lane was then foreman. Soon after he had got his engine to work he discovered a heavy black smoke rolling up the stairway, which at once struck him that the lower portion of the building was on fire. He ordered his men to back out, which they did with much difficulty, as the smoke was so dense they were nearly suffocated. All got out in safety except Francis Hart, Jr. Hart remained to let down the hose and when he tried to descent the flames and smoke were so great as to prevent him, and he went on the roof of the chair factory. He clambered from that building to the corner of Broad and Exchange Streets, breaking each skylight as he proceeded over the roofs, but found no stairs leading from any. Finding himself thus on the third building from the chair factory, without any means of getting down, Hart sat in the scuttle. "I did not then consider myself in any danger" he subsequently reported to an investigating committee. "I had been there about five minutes when I heard the first explosion--a species of rumbling sound--followed by a succession of others of the same kind. The gable of the house next to this corner shook with the first and successive explosions, so that I had prepared myself, if it threatened to fall, to jump through the scuttle of the corner house. After the small explosion the great explosion took place, the noise of which seemed to be principally below me. I perceived the flames shooting across the street. I felt the building falling under me, and the roof moved around so that a corner of it caught on the opposite side of Exchange Street and was thorn off into that street. As far as I could judge the whole roof that I was on moved in one piece, and the walls under it crumbled down beneath it. I think there were some fifteen or eighteen small explosions. I could see one engine from the roof I was on."

How Hart finally escaped death reads like a page in a romance, such as Jules Verne might imagine. Just as the members of No. 22, of which Mr. Waters was foreman, had got about twenty feet away from the building, it blew up. The engine of No. 22 was blown clear across the street, and buried beneath the ruins, where it was finally consumed by fire. Hart, who had managed to reach the roof, had passed to the roof of the adjoining building when the explosion took place. He was carried on the top of the roof upon which he was standing, clear up into the air, and landed in safety on a building on the opposite side of the way, the only injury that he received being the dislocation of one of his ankles.

Augustus L. Cowdrey, a young and promising lawyer, a member of No. 42, was in company with Dave Van Winkle, of engine No. 5, holding a pipe on another building, when another explosion took place, and that was the last ever seen of your Cowdrey. Van Winkle was blown clear out into the street, and escaped with slight injuries.

Some of the fire engines near the building were shivered to atoms. The explosions were accompanied by shocks resembling earthquakes, and so powerful as to shatter windows within the circuit of a mile. The doors of the American Exchange Bank, in Wall Street, were burst open with a loud crash. Shutters were bent and twisted in every direction. The explosion not only carried away three buildings and shattered doors and windows, but it hurled flames and burning timbers into adjoining warehouses. The buildings which stood on New Street, from Wall to Exchange Place and thence to Beaver Street, were laid in ashes. A famous place of resort on Beaver Street known as the Adelphi Hotel was destroyed. Thirty or forty valuable stores with their contents were consumed. The splendid hotel known as the Waverly House on Broadway, with twelve warehouses on Broad Street, on both sides from Wall Street to Exchange place, and thence to Beaver Street; Exchange Place from Broadway to Broad Street, and from Broad to William Street, and silk warehouses and dry goods stores were destroyed--forty buildings in all. The loss by this fire was greater than all the fires since 1835.

The extent of the conflagration was quickly known on the other side of the East River, and among the companies that came from Brooklyn was Jackson Engine Company No. 11, who performed such efficient duty that they were tendered a fine collation by the citizens at Brown & Hall's on Bridge Street. No. 7 of Williamsburg and Nos. 3, 4, and 5, of Newark did noble duty. The Croton Hotel, the Philadelphia Hotel, the Pearl Street House, the City Hotel, and the Broad Street Hotel were open for three days free to all the poor people that were burnt out.

During the fire Engine Company No. 38 was stationed on Bridge Street, No. 25 at the Bowling Green, and No. 13 at the corner of Morris and Greenwich Streets. Among the prominent persons encouraging the firemen were Mayor W. F. Havemeyer, George W. Matsell, then a justice of the peace, afterwards president of the Police Board; ex-Chief Engineer Gulick, Wenman, and Riker, the three last rendering valuable service. Lafayette Hook and Ladder Company No. 6 were the hardest-working truck company at the fire. They, with Hose Company No. 22, were feasted at the Astor House, by invitation of Coleman & Stetson. James M. Murray was then foreman of Hook and Ladder Company No. 6, and Richard H. Welch foreman of Hose Company No. 22. The Delmonico brothers had a very narrow escape. They kept the bon-ton restaurant in those days, but their property was saved through the efforts of Engine Company Nos. 30 and 40 of this city, and No. 7 of Williamsburg. The Delmonicos gave them a splendid repast before they started for home, and one of the brothers afterwards joined the Department.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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