Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 18, Part II

By Holice and Debbie

Onward, still onward, swept the fiery bosom of destruction. The hydrants were exhausted--the engines had long been frozen up with their hose. Westward, the south Dutch Church, which ash been made the hasty depository of stores of precious goods, was inflames, which threatened to extend to Broad Street throughout. At this supreme moment a man was caught setting fire to the house at the corner of Stone and Broad streets. Was he a maniac or maddened by liquor? The excited citizens paused not to inquire, but seizing this fiend inhuman shape lynched him on the spot. On the south a desperate struggle was made at Hanover Square. The firemen has turned their energies to saving property. In that large space was piled an immense amount of goods, thought to be perfectly safe in that spot. There was accumulated the stock of all the French stores, a mass of silks, satins, laces, cartons of dresses, capes, cashmere shawls, and the richest kind of fancy articles, forming a little mountain sixty feet wide by twenty-five feet in height, or nearly one hundred feet square. The large East India warehouse of Peter Remsen & Co., situated on the northeast corner of Hanover Square, was at this moment an object of absorbing interest. It was filled with a full stock of valuable goods. Before the fire reached it goods were cast out I of the windows in the upper stories into the street, and with merchandise from the lower floors were piled up with the rest of the large mass in the square. But the warring flames came swiftly on. Just as the goods were stacked a gust of flame, like a streak of lightning, came from the Remsen building, and shooting across the square, blown by the strong wind, set fire to the entire mass. In a few minutes, the costly pile was reduced to cinders, it disappeared like figures in a dissolving view, and then the fire was communicated to the houses opposite. Notwithstanding the presence of this mighty furnace, the cold was so intense that the firemen were compelled to take the fine blankets saved, and cutting a hole through them, convert them into temporary cloaks. In this attire, they were seen at daybreak dragging home their engines, many of the men so exhausted by fatigue that they were asleep as they walked. One entire company, thus, accoutred, had artificial wreaths and bunches of artificial flowers of the richest kind in their caps, taken from the wreck of matter, and presenting a very singular contrast with their begrimed daces and jaded appearance.

It is said the illumination was so great that it was observed at places a hundred miles distant. At one time turpentine which took fire on the wharf ran down into the water and floated off, making a blazing sea many hundreds of yards square. The shipping in the docks of the East River was endangered, and saved only by strenuous exertions and its removal into the stream. The brig, "Powhatten," lying between Murray's Wharf and Coenties Slip, caught fire, but the flames were soon extinguished. No. 33 Engine was run upon the deck of a brig, in order to take the water with her suction, and played into No. 2, which gave her water to No. 13. This last engine (Mr. Zophar Mills's), as already stated, played in the fire at Wall Street. The members of no. 33 Engine, according to Mr. Charles Forrester, "had their own fun on the deck of the brig. The cook on the vessel made a fire in the galley, and six men would get in there, and shut the doors, and when they got thawed out a member outside would place his fire cap over the pipe and smoke them out; then a new set would go in, and so it was kept up through the night.

The engine did not cease working until daylight, when she stopped for a few seconds, and upon the orders to start again, she was found so frozen that they could get no water through her. The company was then ordered home to thaw out."

To depict the scenes of that awful night would require a volume in itself. The surging crowd, the struggle of the police to restrain them, the thousand and one pieces of property rescued from the burning or endangered building, and carried hither and thither, the innumerable thefts, the shouts of the assembled thousands, the fights ending in bloodshed, the roar of the flames, and the hoarse creaking of the laboring engines no pen can do adequate justice to. It was a saturnalia for the lawless of the populace. Men, and women, too, seized on the cases of wine and barrels of liquor that was thrown about anywhere and everywhere. It is supposed that a thousand baskets of champagne were broken and destroyed, the tops being unceremoniously knocked off, and the contents drunk by the maddened throngs surrounding the fire. An immense quantity of baskets of champagne were seen floating in the docks, and cheese and provisions were scattered there and about the slips. It was soon seen that to save the rest of the city several buildings must be blown up to check the progress of the fire. James Gulick, the hero of the "June Bugs," who was then chief engineer, decided to blow up the houses that were immediately threatened. Chief Engineer Gulick sent for some keg of gunpowder, but a sufficiency could not be obtained in the city--not being allowed as an article of merchandise. Other messengers were sent in hot haste to the fort on Governor's Island, but in vain. Though a most bitter night, a navy barge was dispatched, against a head tide, to the magazine at Red Hook, a distance probably of four or five miles from the Yard for a supply of powder.

Then when the first faint streaks of dawn were struggling with the unnatural redness in the sky, a corps of marines arrived with some powder, and the demolition of the buildings began, but it was not until noon of Thursday that the necessary break was made at Coenties Slip. It was truly remarkable, the characteristic sangfroid with which the sailors of Captain Mix's party carried about, wrapped up in a blanket or a pea-jacket, as it might happen, kegs and barrels of gunpowder, amid a constant shower of fire, as they followed their officers to the various buildings indicated for destruction. On the noth side the extraordinary strength of the Wall Street buildings--many of them resisting firmly the assaults of the destroyer, and none of the walls crumbing and falling into the street, as is too generally the case--did more for the safety of that part of the city than anything within the power of human effort. For hours it was doubtful whether the flames could be resisted here, and, if not, there was little hope that they could be before reaching Maiden Lane.

The advent of the marines and sailors from the navy Yard had a beneficial effect upon the crowds. The marines, eighty in number, under command of Captain Walker, formed a complete chain of sentinels along South Street, from the Fulton Ferry to Wall Street, and up Wall to the Exchange. They kept their posts all night, and thus afforded great protection to the property exposed. Great prices were offered and given for help in removing goods. One merchant is said to have purchased a horse and cart on the spot for five hundred dollars with which he succeeded in saving his stock. Leary, the hatter, in the midst of the fire gave away hats to any fellow who would help him remove a bundle. To one fellow he gave a hat who handed it back "What's the matter?" "It doesn't fit." was the saucy reply. "Give me one to fit, if you are giving away hats." Many of the merchants, in the excitement of removing their goods, gave away blankets or anything to poor people who aided them. One poor man had removed several valuable packages to a place of safety. "Here's a coat, a pair of pantaloons, and a blanket for you." aid the merchant, handing over the articles.

The violence of the gale continued all night. Burning embers were carried across the East River to Brooklyn, and set fire to the roof of a house which, however, was speedily extinguished. Mr. John A. Meyers, of One Hindered and Fourth Street, near Ninth Avenue, who celebrated his golden wedding with four generations on February 8,1886, was then living in a farmhouse on the site of the present Joralemon Street, Brooklyn, said that on the following morning he found the space around his dwelling black with embers flown over from the great fire. The grandest and most inspiring views were from Brooklyn, Weehawken, and Staten Island. Thence the whole city seemed in one awful sheet of flame. The merchants, aided by the firemen and the well-disposed citizens, devoted themselves to removing to places of supposed safety such property as could in their haste be got together. With this intent an immense quantity of goods was placed in the Merchants' Exchange in Wall Street and in the Reformed Dutch church in Garden Street, where it was presumed they would be secure. But in a short time these buildings with their contents were reduced to ashes. The Exchange was one of the largest edifices in the city, situated on the south side of Wall Street, and embracing one hundred and fifteen feet of the front between William and Hanover Streets. It was three stories high, exclusive of the basement, which was considerably elevated. Its southwest front was of Westchester marble. The first and second stories of the Ionic order, from the Temple of Minerva Pallas, at Prigue, In Iona; a recessed elliptical portico of forty feet wide introduced in front. A screen of four columns and two antae, each thirty feet and three feet four inches in diameter above the base, composed of a single block of marble, extended across the foot of the portico, supporting an entablature of six feet in height, on which rested the third story, making a height of sixty feet from the ground. The principal entrance to the rotunda and exchange room was by a flight of ten marble steps, with a pedestal at each end. On ascending to the portico three doors opened to offices. The vestibule was of the Ionic order, from the little Ionic Temple of Illysus. The exchange room, which was the rotunda, was seventy-five feet long, fifty-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high, to which were attached four principal rooms, and in the rear of the rotunda another, used for the auction sales of real estate, shipping, and stocks. The building was begun on the first of April, 1825, and occupied twenty-seven months in its erection, having first been occupied in July, 1827. The plan was that of the architect, Mr. E. Thompson.

This structure long resisted the flames. It did not catch until 2 o'clock on Thursday morning. The end in which the spire pointed to heaven, in the background, was the spot where it was fired. It extended from that point to the cupola and dome. In the centre of the rotunda was erected, by the liberality of the merchants of the city, a statue of General Alexander Hamilton, sculpted by Ball Hughes. The statue was about 15 feet high, including the case on which it was elevated, and chiseled from the whitest marble. The figure represented him holding a scroll in the left hand, resting on the thigh, and a scarf partly covering the body. For a long time this splendid statue was seen towering brightly amidst the sea of flames that dashed against its crackling base, seeming to cast a mournful glance on the terrific scene. About four o'clock the magnificent dome caved in with an awful crash, one lurid glare ascended to heaven, and then the marble effigy of Hamilton fell nobly, perishing under the crush of the edifice of which it had been, as it were, the tutelary genius. But on gallant effort had been made to save it by a young officer from the Navy Yard with a party of four or five blue jackets. They had actually succeeded in partly removing it from the pedestal when the warning cry was uttered that the roof was about to fall, and they had to seek safety in flight.

Another fine sight was the handsome church of the Rev. Dr. Matthews, in Garden Street. For along while it withstood the mass of flames in their course towards Broad Street. The church possessed a famous organ. Many and many a solemn dirge had been played upon it at the burial of the dead, and now, the holy temple being on fire, some one commenced performing upon that organ its own funeral dirge and continued it till the lofty ceiling was in a blaze. The music ceased, and in a short time the beautiful edifice, with its noble instrument and immense quantities of goods stored inside and out, were all irrecoverably gone, nothing escaping save the long-sleeping dust and bones of the buried dead. Above the church the bright gold ball and star on the highest point of the spire gleamed brilliantly, and still, while they were both shining on the deep blue concave with a n intensity of splendor which attracted general remark, gave one surge and fell in all their glory into the heap of chaos beneath them.

On the following day the heart of the city seemed to have ceased to beat. Of business there was none; New York was stricken as with paralysis. From five to ten thousand persons had been thrown out of employment, and universal sorry prevailed. The people gathered iun their thousands around the smoking ruins, and sadly thought of the many families whose daily bread was gone. Swiftly flew the news to other cities, and sympathy of a practical kind was the response. The same locomotive that early on Thursday morning carried the tidings of the fire to Newark brought to the city within an hour afterwards the New Jersey Engines, which at once went to work. The conduct of the Philadelphia firemen was noble. Immediately on the receipt of the intelligence from New York 400 of them organized themselves and started to come on. Unfortunately, by the breaking down of one of the cars on the railroad, a large number of them Werke obliged to go back, and some arrived early on Saturday morning, and the remainder followed with as little delay as possible. Stations were assigned them amid the ruins, and they went to work with great spirit and excellent results. On the succeeding nights, patrol duty was done by the Third and Ninth Regiments and the light infantry companies. Civic patrols were also formed in several wards, and thus property to a great amount was saved from depredation. Large quantities of merchandise, carried off in boats on Wednesday night were secreted on the Long Island and Jersey shores and in the upper wards of the city.

The scene at Police headquarters was indeed heartrending. The squalid misery of a greater part of those taken with the goods ion their possession, the lies and prevarication's to which they resorted to induce the magistrates not to commit them to prison, their screeching and wailing when they found they must relinquish the splendid prizes they made during the raging of the fire, and the numbers in which they were brought by the police and military, exceeded any scene of a similar kind on record. For the previous three days and nights every place capable of detention was crammed with these miserable objects--sometimes as many as one hundred being in confinement at the same moment. Hundred were discharged without detention or other punishment than merely taking from them their plunder; and but very few of the whole number, even those who had stolen hundreds if dollars' worth, could be convicted, in consequence of the impossibility of the identification of the property stolen.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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