History of the Fire Department of the City of New York

Chapter 18, Part I

By Holice and Debbie



A Night of Destruction and Terror.--Seventeen Degrees below Zero. -- Frozen Rivers and Frozen Engines. -- Twenty Million Dollars' Worth of Property Swept Away. -- A Mountain of Flames Lighting up the Bay. -- Despair of the Citizens. -- Gallant Struggles of the Firemen. -- Alexander Hamilton's View.

The most destructive fire that has visited New York, the third greatest on this continent, needs at least a chapter to itself. The great conflagration of 1835, though of world-wide fame, has never been fully told with all its incidents and all its consequences. It was a terrible day for the first city of the land. The destruction was fearful, and so were the results. In a few months the United States banks suspended payment; then followed the commercial distress of 1837, and for a time business seemed paralyzed. Next came bankruptcy after bankruptcy in quick succession, and soon the banks of the State stopped payment for one year. The legislature legalized this necessary public act. The gloomiest forebodings prevailed, and well they might, considering the terrible reverses which the Empire City experienced from this memorable fire. But if the destruction was so great, the rebuilding and the recovery were no less marvelous. New York quickly arose from her ashes, and acres of splendid granite, marble, brown stone, and brick stores filled the entire space that had been swept by the flames.

Three years before the terrible conflagration of December, 1835, there was a visitation of Asiatic cholera, which had recurred season after season, carrying off numbers of the population, and spreading consternation throughout the city. In the summer of 1835 the epidemic seemed to have exhausted itself, and the harassed people were congratulating themselves upon a bight and happy future when another cloud spread over them to dash their spirits, and misfortune once more drove them almost to despair. The fearfulness of the night was intensified by the depth of the snow, the tempestuousness of the weather, and the extreme bitterness of the cold, for the thermometer was far below zero. And yet our bold, self-sacrificing firemen did their whole duty--did it, too, under the most adverse circumstances. Two nights previous to this disastrous event the men had been on duty at two heavy fires, one at Christie and Delancey Streets, at which some half a dozen buildings were consumed, and the other on Water Street. The latter broke out in a spike and nail establishment belonging to Fullerton & Peckerings, No. 173, which was totally destroyed. When the fire was at its height the side walls fell out, crushing in No. 171, the latter taking fire almost instantly, and was the means of communicating to several others. Seven buildings and two carpenters' shops were destroyed. Consequently the fireman came to this biggest of fire almost fagged out.

The flames raged from sixteen to twenty-four hours, swept away six hundred and seventy-four buildings, covering seventeen blocks, and fifty acres of ground, in the very heart of the city. It destroyed the section which contained the banks, the Stock Exchange, the Post Office, two churches, the dry goods warehouses, and some of the finest buildings in the city. The losses were estimated at twenty million dollars, which, in proportion to the size and wealth of the New York of today, is equivalent to what two hundred million dollars would represent now. The great fire of 1835 had never had an equal in any English speaking country since the destructive fire of London in 1666.

On Wednesday night, the sixteenth of December, the brazen tongue of the old jail bell, near the City Hall, and other fire bells, rang out their dreadful alarm upon the frosty air. The gusty wind blew the warning sounds eat, west, north and south. Out stumbled the gallant fire laddies, and through the snow-covered streets, assisted by the excited citizens, dragged their engines. A private watchman, Peter A. Holmes, while patrolling his beat, had discovered smoke issuing from the five-story building, No. 25 Merchant Street, which extended through to Pearl Street, and was occupied on the first floor by Comstock & Andrews, fancy dry goods merchants, and the upper part by Henry Barbund, a French importer. In twenty minutes the flames spread to Exchange Place, then to Water Street, taking both sides of Old Slip and Coenties Slip, then to Beaver, to Jones' Place, to Front and South Streets. The breeze from the N. N. W. amounted almost to a gale. The rivers were frozen solid; so thick indeed was the ice that the firemen had to cut through it to clear the ends of the pier before they could strike water. Several of the engines were lowered down on the ice and there worked by the men. Every cistern and well was frozen in like manner. As the water from the rivers was pimped into the hose it froze in part and choked the flow. The firemen worked hard, stamping upon the hose to break the ice, and laboring at the pumps. The streams that were thrown by hydrants and engines were blown back in the faces of the toilers, falling congealed at the feet of the firemen. These efforts seemed to add only to the fury of the elements.

Many buildings were new storehouses with iron shutters and copper roofs, and so intense was the heat that the metal was melted and ran off the roof in streams. The harbor was lighted up brilliantly, the water looking like a sea of blood. Every spar and every rope in the ships was distinctly visible. Clouds of smoke, like dark mountains suddenly rising into the air, were succeeded by long banners of flame, reaching to the zenith and roaring for their prey. Street after street caught the terrible torrent, until acre after acre was booming an ocean of flame. The Tontine Building (Hudson's News Room), which had a shingle roof, caught fire, and dark smoke on huge masses tinged with flickering flashes of bright flame, burst from all the upper windows. The Tontine was on the north side of Wall Street, and had the flames consumed this building, nothing would have saved the upper part of the city. The old Tontine Coffee House was the exchange of the city, and Buyden, its keeper, is described as a rough but pleasant old fellow. It is related of him that when the first anthracite coal was offered for sale in New York, he tried it in the hall of the Tontine. He pronounced the new article worse than nothing, for he had put on scuttle into the grate and then another, and after they were consumed he took up two scuttlefuls of stones. Two solitary engines, with what little water they managed to obtain, were throwing their feeble and useless stream upon the flaming stores opposite, when Mr. Oliver Hull, calling their attention to the burning of the cornice of the Tontine, promised to donate one hundred dollars to the Firemen's Fund, "if they would extinguish that blaze." In the vicinity was No. 13 Engine, of which Mr. Zophar Mills (who is still living) was foreman. Seeing the danger and knowing that in the ordinary way the hose would not convey the water to the top of the Tontine, Foreman Mills directed his men to get a counter which had been taken out of one of the stores, and to place on the top a gin or brandy puncheon and hold the nozzle so that the water could be thrown on the shingles of the building. By this means the fire was kept under at this point, and the upper part of the city was saved. This was at about our o'clock in the morning, and the cold was so penetrating that it was almost next to impossible to hold the nozzle of the hose in position. Thousands of citizens had flocked to the scene, and their aid was welcome to the tired firemen.

Subsequently there was a controversy as to what company was entitled to the reward for, and the honor of, extinguishing the blazing cornice. The dispute was referred to Mr. Hull, the gentleman who offered the reward, who wrote a letter to Mr. Zophar Mills in which he says:

"Other firemen came in to assist from various directions; but the company to whom I spoke, and who piled up the packages on the counter, was, in my estimation, mostly, if not entirely, entitled to the honor of extinguishing the fire. I stood at the corner of Water Street, and observed the whole transaction.

Several firemen afterwards called at my store, and stated that they had assisted In preventing the fire from crossing Wall Street at various places, and all of them appeared to share in the honors. I do not remember which company I paid the money to, but remember that there was some controversy between 8 and 13 as to which was entitled to receive it. But, as it went into the Charitable Fund of the Fire Department, that was not deemed of much consequence. I make this statement with much pleasure, as I consider that we were indebted to the great exertions of our brave fellow citizens the firemen, on that disastrous night, in preventing the fire from crossing Wall Street, thus saving millions of property, and our beautiful city from probably entire ruin."

It was clearly proven at the time that the counter referred to was placed by Engine Company No. 13 upon the sidewalk and an empty liquor cask placed thereon. On the erection thus made Wm. Fitz Randolph held the pipe of Engine No. 13, while Alfred Willis was engaged in raising the rose. The pipe was held at as great an elevation as possible, and by the untied force of the company applied to the engine, an unusually strong stream was forced upon the burning cornice. The following certificate was drawn up and signed by witnesses of the action;

We, the undersigned, do hereby certify and declare that we were present at the great fire on the night of the sixteenth of December, 1835, and that we saw the stream of water from the pipe of Fire Engine No. 13 reach and extinguish the fire on the cornice of the Tontine Building which was then in a blaze and burning rapidly.

James S. Leggett 183 Allen Street
Cornelius Fitz Randolph 36 Cortlandt Street
William H. Patten 266 Washington Street
Cornelius T. Norstrand 179 West Street
Isaac Tice 201 Grand Street
Isaac D. Brown 10 Peck Slip
Alfred Willis 36 Cortlandt Street
George D. Jamison 36 Cortlandt Street
John S. Williams 81 Maiden Lane
John Barry 79 Catharine Street
George Ferguson, Jr. 28 Oak Street
D. Berrien, Jr. 240 Pearl Street
Henry Fourat 24 Rose Street
John Sutphen 76 Wall Street
James Whitlock 24 Eldridge Street
Thomas D. Howe  (engineer having the company in charge) 90 Orchard Street

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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