Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 18, Part III

By Holice and Debbie

Mr. James Gordon Bennett, the elder, was then, by his characteristic enterprise and liberally, building up his paper, was Herald. In his issue of December 19 he gives the following graphic description of his visit to the ruins of the morning following the fire:

"At nine o'clock yesterday morning I went to see the awful scene. It was heartening in the extreme. I walked down William Street. Crowds of people of both sexes were wandering in the same direction. It was cold, and every other person had a woolen comforter wrapped around his neck. On approaching the corner of wall and William Streets the smoking ruins were awful. The whole of the southern side of Wall Street was nearly down. The front walls of the Exchange were in part remaining, covered with smoke and exhibiting the effects of the fire. The splendid marble and columns were cracked in several parts. The street was full of people, the sidewalks encumbered with boxes, bales, bundles, desks, safes, and loose articles. There was no possibility of then proceeding further down William Street. Both sides were burned down and the streets were filled up with the hot bricks, burning goods and heaps of rubbish. United States soldiers wre stationed here and there to protect the goods, yet the boys, men, and women, of all colors, wre stealing and pilfering as fast as they could. From this spot I proceeded down Wall Street in the center. I saw the Journal of Commerce sign--al the rest gone. The various brokers' offices to the right were a heap of ruins. The Josephs, the Allens, the Livingstons and various others, all in ruins. From the Exchange down to the river, one side of Wall Street is a heap of ruins.

"On going down Wall Street I found it difficult to get through the crowd. The hose of the fire engines was run along the street and frozen. The front blocks of houses between Exchange Place and Pearl Street, on Wall, were standing, behind which was all ruin and desolation. At the corner of Wall and pearl, on looking southwardly, I saw a single ruin standing about half way to Hanover Square. I proceeded, climbing over the hot bricks. On the site, as I thought, of Pearl Street--but of that I am not sure--till got to the single, solitary wall that reared its head as if it was in mockery of the elemental war.

On approaching I read on the mutilated granite wall, "Arth-- Tap--n, 122 Pe--l Street," these were all the characters I could distinguish on the column. Two stories of this great wall were standing--the rest entirely in ruins. It was the only portion of a wall standing from the corner of Wall Street to Hanover Square; for beyond that there are nothing but smoke and fire and dust.

"Proceeding along on the ruins, sometimes on pearl Street, sometimes out of it, I found several groups of boys and men digging among the hot dust and bricks. 'What are they doing?' 'Damn them,' said he, 'they are looking for money. Some of them have found gold pieces and others franc pieces.' 'Hillo?' cried a dirty looking little fellow, 'I have got something.' In several other places there were small groups of pilferers and thieves. In the center of Hanover Square I found a variety of goods and merchandise burning. Several men and boys were warming themselves at a fire made of fine French calicoes and Irish linens. Here the smoke was intense. From Hanover Square I could neither proceed south, east nor west. William Street, Pearl and down to the wharf were all impassable. The smoke was suffocating. The whole of the wharf between the corner of William and Pearl up to the Exchange, with all the streets, etc., I saw to be a sad heap of utter ruins. 'Good God!' said a man to me, 'what a sight!' 'What a sight, truly!' said I. From this spot, near the Gazette office which was entirely burned down, I returned the way I came, climbing over burning bricks, knocking against boys, encountering bales and boxes, till again reached a firm footing in Wall Street. I then proceeded down the northern side of Wall Street to the wharf below. The crowd of spectators was greater here than ever. The street was full of boxes and goods. I felt quite cold. I saw a large group of men stirring up a fire in the center of Wall Street, between Water and Front, which is here wide. On going near to warm myself I found the fire was made out of the richest merchandise and fine furniture from some of the elegant counting rooms.

"I proceeded to Hudson's News Room, which escaped, having been on the windward side of Wall Street. I could not find an entrance. It was full of goods and bales of merchandise. I proceeded to the corner of Wall and Front Streets. Here I saw a horrible scene of desolation. Looking down South Street toward the south nothing could be seen but awful ruins. People were standing shaking their heads and stamping their feet--still quite cold--and uttering melancholy exclamations. A small boy at the corner was caught by an honest black porter stealing some goods. 'What are you going to do with that?' asked the porter. 'Nothing,' said the boy. 'Then lay it where you found it and go to the watch house with me.' The rascal attempted to escape. He cried out. 'Let the scoundrel go!' said a gentleman, and straightway the honest black man gave him a kick and let him run.

"From the corner of Wall Street I proceeded southwardly, for I cannot now talk of streets; all their sites are buried in ruins and smoking bricks. No vessels lay here at the wharves; all were gone. I went down the wharf; the basin was floating with calicoes, silks, teas, packing cases, and other valuable merchandise. Piles of coarse linen and sacking encumbered the street. The carts were busy driving the mutilated goods away. Going a little further south, on what was formerly Front Street, I encountered a cloud of smoke that burst from a smoking pile of stores. I was almost suffocated. Emerging from this sirocco I found myself near a group of boys and ragged men huddling round a fire made of some curious species of fuel. All around appeared to be large heaps of small dust. The fragrance was fine. I asked one of the boys, 'What is that?' 'Tea, sir.' said he, with perfect nonchalance; 'fine Hyson tea; doesn't it made a fine fire? Come, Jack, throw in a little more of that fuel,' and sure enough he did. A fire was hissing away, made out of tea boxes and fine Hyson tea itself. Several little dirty girls were here gathering up Hyson tea and putting it away in baskets. Proceeding further, I encountered hogsheads of raw sugar, half emptied, and their contents strewed, like the Hyson tea, over the pavements and bricks. Boys and girls were eating it as fast as they could.

"I could not get further than a short distance down Front Street from the corner of Wall. The smoke, ruin, hot bricks, and all were too horrible to get over or through. Retracing my steps, I returned up Wall Street. The same scenes presented themselves to me. The crowds were immense. Carts, porters, merchants, brokers, bankers, women, children crowded from Front to the bottom of Wall Street. I passed the solitary columns of the Exchange, I under the corner of Broad Street, and attempted in that direction to reach the southwest part of the scene of conflagration. All Broad Street was crowded with goods, merchandise, carts, porters, and crowds. I attempted several times to thread my way down to the wharf at the foot of Broad Street. I could not do it. From the center of this street, looking to the left over the buildings in the direction of William, I saw nothing but flames ascending to heaven, and prodigious clouds of smoke curling after it as if from a volcano. Emerging from Broad Street I went up by a narrow street to the Bowling Green. Here was deposited on the sidewalks half a million of fine goods. The whole street was lined. Clerks were standing around the several piles watching them. I went down Whitehall Slip. It was equally crowded with rich merchandise. One whole end of the Battery was covered with the richest silks, sarsnets, and brocades and woollen cloths. The plunderers were here quiet busy. Several were caught, and sent to the watchhouse. I turned the corner at the southern end of South Street, and wended my way along the wharves in the direction of Coenties Slip. I found all the merchants in Front Street busy removing their goods.

"On reaching the corner of Front Street and Coenties Slip the most awful scenes burst upon my eyes. I behold the several blocks of seven story stores, full of rich merchandise, on the northern side of the slip, in one bright, burning, horrible flame. About forty buildings were on fire at one moment. The front on the slip was piled up with goods. 'What nonsense!' said the people, 'the goods will burn up also.' Here the crowd was immense. All the upper part of the slip on the northern and eastern side as burning or burned up. At the southern corner of Pearl and Coenties Slip it was just passable. All to the right was on fire, and every store back to Broad Street it was feared would go. Pushing through the crowd, I attempted to get back to Broad Street through Pearl. It was hardly possible, so much was the street encumbered with goods, crowds, and carts.

"From this point I retreated up Broad Street through an immense crowd to the Custom House, to which the Post-office had retreated. Here I found a few of the Post-office clerks in an apartment leading from Pine Street, all in an awful state of confusion. They scarcely knew what they had lost or saved, and could not tell when mails would be ready. On falling in with several of our most respectable citizens, I said, 'Awful! Horrible!' 'Truly, truly,' said they, 'we are all ruined; I have two sons gone; each of their stores is burned down.' The insurance companies will not be able to pay five shillings in the pound. New York is bankrupt. New York is put twenty years back. Philadelphia and Boston will now start ahead of us.' 'What shall be done?' asked I. 'Shall we not go to war with France>' "Tush! Tush' said he. 'The surplus revenue ought to pay for this night's work. We paid it to the government--let them give it back to us; we are ruined and bankrupt.'

"There were five hundred stores destroyed. Many of them were worth three hundred thousand dollars. Put them at forty thousand dollars each average, and we have a loss of twenty million dollars--the probable truth. To cover this loss there are twenty-six insurance companies in operation with a capital of nine million four hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Probably two-thirds of this is good for the losses--say six times. Add two millions insured in Boston and elsewhere, makes eight millions of insurance, which, all paid, leaves a dead loss of twelve millions of dollars to individual merchants and owners of real estate. Some of the oldest families in the city are ruined."

Of the six large morning newspapers only two escaped the general wreck--the Mercantile and the Courier and Enquirer. The Daily Advertiser, Journal of Commerce, and Gazette were burned out of both printing and publication offices; the Times of printing office only. The American among the evening papers wre entirely destroyed. All Mr. Minor's periodicals, Railroad Journal, Mechanics' Magazine, etc. etc. were included in the wreck. The printers of the Knickerbocker also. The following were the number of buildings destroyed on each street:



Old Slip




Jones' Lane




Gouverneur Lane




Exchange Place




Exchange Street




Guyless Alley




Hanover Square




Merchant Street




- -

Coenties Slip




Arthur Tappen & Co. escaped the absolute ruin in which so many were involved. Their store being of stone, and having window shutters of thick boiler iron (put on after the mobs of 1834), withstood the flames for nearly an hour, while all was in a blaze around it, so that the books and papers, and a very large amount of good, probably one hundred thousand dollars' worth, were carried out, and after two removes placed beyond the spread of fire. The energy and daring with which the colored people pressed to save these goods greatly impressed the bystanders. It was with difficulty they were restrained from rushing in after the flames had burst out at the door.

Arthur Tappen had an insurance effected on his store and goods to the amount of three hundred thousand dollars at one of the Boston offices. No office in New York would insure him because he was an abolitionist.

On the second night after the conflagration a couple of gentlemen observed a stout woman making up Pearl Street, near the corner of Wall Street, with a large bundle under her cloak. When she saw the gentlemen looking at her, she immediately commenced singing, "Hush-a-by, baby," etc. The gentlemen thinking that the poor baby was quite worrisome, offered their aid to quiet its infant restlessness. "Oh, bless your honors, she's asleep now." The gentlemen still persisted in having a peep at the blooming little cherub. She resisted, but in vain. On opening the cloak, they found that the dear little creature, in the terror of the moment, had actually changed into an armful of the richest silk and satin goods, slightly burned at the ends. The affectionate mother was immediately secured.

During the fire a store was burnt in which was contained eight hundred thousand pounds of lead, belonging to a merchant in Philadelphia. After the fire was over, and the rubbish removed, it was found that the lead had melted into large masses, so that the owner was obliged to quarry it out.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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