Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 18, Part IV

By Holice and Debbie

The quantity of French goods was very great. Out of twenty-seven French importing merchants, twenty-three had been completely burned out. There were only four left in the city, and of these, but one of any magnitude--H. Boerdam & Co. French goods advanced twelve per cent. About twelve hundred packages of Manchester print goods were alone destroyed in Exchange Place; commonly called Calico Row. Of linens, also, a large quantity had been destroyed. Stephen Whitney lost $500,000 in houses and real estate; John Suydam, probably $200,000 in stores and insurance stocks. Out of $200,000 in insurance stocks, Dr. Hasack, who died four days after, only saved $20,000. About ten crockery stores were completely destroyed, and also nine or ten hardware. The McNeals, of Salem, were the losers of the great cargo of tea in the store of Osborne & Young. On Tuesday, the day before the fire, they were offered $60,000 profit on the whole cargo. They said to their supercargo, "Shall we take it?' "I would advise you not." Said he. "You can, by keeping it a month, make $200,000. They did so, and lost the whole. After the fire the supercargo recalled the conversation and regretted it. "No," they said, "it is all for the best." Providence knows better than you do. It might have been bought by someone that could not bear the loss so well as we can." Noble Fellows! Probably about four thousand boxes of sugar of all kinds had been destroyed, and at least forty thousand bags of coffee. On Old Slip there were piled up at least five thousand bags.

Gabriel P. Disosway of the firm of Disosway & Brothers, 180 Pearl Street, near Maiden Lane, writing some years after the occurrence, has given one of the best accounts of the fire. "I then resided in that pleasant Quaker neighborhood, Vandewater Street," said he, "and, hearing an alarm of fire, hastened to the front door. I put on an old warm overcoat and an old hat for active service on my own hook. Years afterwards these articles, preserved as curiosities, bore marks of the heat, sparks and exposure of that fearful time . . . . My own course that night was to obtain voluntary aid, and, entering the stores of personal friends, remove, if possible, books and papers . . . . .It is impossible to imagine the fervent heat created by the increasing flames. Many of the stores were new, with iron shutters, doors and cooper roofs and gutters, 'fire proof' of first-class, and I carefully watched the beginning and the progress of their destruction. The heat alone at times melted the copper roofing, and the burning liquid ran off in great drops. At one store, near Arthur Tappan & Co.'s, I warned some firemen of their danger from this unexpected source. Along here, the buildings were of the first-class, and one after another ignited under the roof, from the next edifice. Downward from floor to floor went the devouring element. As the different stories caught, the iron closed shutters shone with glowing redness, until at last forced open by the uncontrollable enemy. Within, they presented the appearance of immense iron furnaces in full blast. The tin and copper roofs, often seemed struggling to maintain their fast hold, gently rising and falling and moving until, their rafters giving away, they mingled in the blazing crater below of goods, beams, floors and walls.

"On the north side of Hanover Square stood the fine storehouse of Peter Remsen & Co., one of the largest East India firms, with a valuable stock. Here we assisted, and many light bales of goods were thrown from the upper windows, together with a large amount of other merchandise, all heaped in the midst of the square, then thought to be a perfectly secure place. . . . . . Water Street, too, was on fire, and we hastened to the old firm of S. B. Harper and sons, grocers in Front Street, opposite Gouverneur Lane, where there appeared to be no immediate danger. The father and sons had arrived, and we succeeded in removing their valuables. As we left the store after the last load a terrible explosion occurred near by with the noise of a cannon. The earth shook. We ran for safety, not knowing what might follow, and took refuge on the corner of Gouverneur Lane, nearly opposite. Waiting for a few minutes a second explosion took place, then another and another. During the space perhaps of half an hour shock after shock followed in rapid succession, accompanied with the darkest, thickest clouds of smoke imaginable. The explosions came from a store on Front Street, near Old Slip, where large quantities of saltpeter in bags had been stored. Suddenly the whole ignited, and out leaped the flaming streams of these neutral salts, in their own peculiar colors, from every door and window. Some might have called them fireworks . . . . . One of the most grand and frightful scenes of the whole night was the burning of a large oil store at the corner of Old Slip and South Street. It was four or more stories high, and filled with windows on both sides without any shutters. This was before the days of petroleum and kerosene, and the building was full of sperm and other oils. These fired hogshead after hogshead, and over the spacious edifice resembled a vast bonfire or giant beacon, casting its bright beams far and wide on the river and surrounding region, bur finally the confined inflammable mass from eaves to cellar shot out with tremendous force through every window and opening, and soon all disappeared except the cracked, tottering, and fall walls . . . . . .I sought the premises of Burns, Halliburton & Co., one of the most popular firms of that day. They were the agents of the Merrimac and other works, and had an immense valuable stock of calicoes, muslins, and flannels. In one of the upper lofts I met a member of the firm, Mr. Burns, one of nature's noblemen, since dead, with his other partners, and he was weeping. 'Too hard,' said he, 'after all the toil of years, to see property thus suddenly destroyed!' "Cheer up,' we replied, 'the world is still wide enough for success and fortune,' and so it proved to him and many other sufferers.

"From Maiden Lane to Coenties Slip, and from William Street to the East River, the whole immense area, embracing some 13 acres, all in a raging uncontrollable blaze! To what can we compare it? An ocean of fire, as it were, with roaring, rolling, burning waves, surging onward and upward, and spreading certain universal destruction; tottering walls and falling chimney, with black smoke, hissing, clashing sounds on every side. Something like this, for we cannot describe it, was the fearful prospect, and soon satisfied with the alarming, fearful view, we retreated from our high outlook.

"Not so long after we left our high standpoint it was enveloped in the universal blaze, and soon the Garden Street Church, with its spire, organ, and heaps of goods stores within and out side, was consumed. There, too, was lost the venerable bell which had been removed at an early period in New York history from the old St. Nicholas Church within the present Battery. 'What more can be done to stop the progress of the flames?' became the anxious and general inquiry. Mr. Cornelius W. Lawrence, the Mayor, appeared with his officers, and, after consultation, it was determined to blow up some buildings, and the east corner of Coenties Slip and Coenties Lane (a narrow street) was selected as the proper place to begin the necessary work. On the opposite was the store of William Van Antwerp & Co., hardware dealers and relatives of the writer, who, engaged at this point in saving goods, could see the necessary preparations for the blast. The building to be blown up, I think, was occupied by Wyncoop & Co., grocers. It was large and of brick. Colonel Smith soon arrived with the powder, and a gang of officers and sailors from the Navy Yard, and none else were permitted to interfere. They commenced mining in the cellar, and, placing heavy timbers upon the powder kegs and against beams of the floors, everything was soon ready for the explosion. A friend near by said to an old tar, 'Be careful or you will be blown up!' 'Blow and be ------!' was the careless and characteristic reply to the warning; but, all having been admirably and safely arranged, the crowd retreated. The torch was applied, and in an instant the report followed; then the immense mass heaved up as if by magic, and losing its fastenings, from the cellar to the roof, tottered, shook and fell. A shout went up from the gazing spectators, and at this point the common danger was evidently arrested, thanks to Colonel Swift, Lieutenant Reynolds, and Captain Mix of the Navy, and their noble, brave sailors. Heroism can be as much displayed at a terrible catastrophe of this kind as on the bloody field of battle, and it was to-night. This party of miners arrived about 2 o'clock in the morning, when their important work commenced. They continued it successfully in another direction; indeed, it was believed that the conflagration was at last checked by this blowing up of the buildings.

"Wearied with watching, labor and anxiety, thousands wished for the return of day, and at length a dim, increasing light in the east, bur enshrouded with full, heavy clouds of smoke, foretold the coming morning. And what an unexpected, melancholy spectacle to thousands did New York present! The generous firemen from Philadelphia soon after made their appearance, but the fire had been checked. The immense remains continued to blaze and burn the many days. We could now travel around the bounds of the night's destruction, but no living being could venture through them. . . . . . . . .Many a merchant living in the upper section of the city went quietly to bed that night, and strange as it may seem, when he came down town the next morning. Literally could not find his store, not enough of his stock remaining to cover his head--every yard, ell, pound, gone! There were official statements of several stores, in each of which a quarter of a million dollars in goods was consumed, with books, notes, and accounts. New York the next day sat, as it were, in sackcloth and ashes, and real sorrow began to appear on men's faces as the losses and ruin were discovered by the light of day.

"During the conflagration, then under full headway toward Broad Street, the presence of mind of one man saved much property. This was Downing, the oyster king, of Broad Street fame. Water was out of the question, and at this emergency he thought of his supplies of vinegar, which were large, and with careful application by pailful after pailful a large amount of property was saved in that direction from the general destruction.

"In the estimated thirteen acres of the burned district only one store escaped entire. This was occupied by the well-known John A. Moore of this day in the iron trade on Water Street, near Old Slip. Watched inside, and fire proof, in their wildest career the rapid flames seemed, as it were, to overleap the building, destroying all others. There it stood solitary and alone amidst surrounding entire destruction, as a sad monument stands alone amid the general ruin."

Among those who were deeply affected by this calamitous fire was the celebrated Colonel Alexander Hamilton. Colonel Hamilton wrote the following letter in reference to the fire to the Mercantile Advertiser and New York Advocate:

In the anxious state of the public mind will you permit me to suggest a few reflections, which appears to me not unworthy the attention of those who hold important stations controlling the destinies of the community. In the first place, it is not necessary to magnify the distressful consequences of the disastrous conflagration, in which we have all, rich and poor, a most painful subject of contemplation. The evil is not without its remedy, and in such a community as ours it cannot be of long endurance. The common inquiries are everywhere heard. "What is to be done/" "where is the mischief to end?" "From what quarter are we to look for assistance?" To all which interrogations the answer is readily suggested, by a recurrence to the immense pecuniary ability of the country, which, if wisely administered, cannot fail to afford immediate relief. In the onset, it is important that our insurance companies and our banking institutions should, in their respective capacities, create conservative committees to ascertain the losses which they have actually sustained, and the means of meeting them. These are certainly necessary preliminary steps, and essentially important. This being determined on, it will then be advisable that application should be made to congress to place at the disposal of our State government whatever amount of money it may judge to employ in order to administer to the urgent wants of this crisis. The necessity of some legislative interference cannot be questioned, and if promptly given when the legislature meets in January, the benignant influence of confidence will be felt. In order to extend assistance the State Treasury should be authorized to loan on all good securities, bonds, and mortgages, etc., in the possession of the insurance companies, to afford them an immediate opportunity to pay the amount of their indebtedness of their policies of insurance, without which they will have to depend on the dilatory course of law, and, in the operation, necessarily increase the distress by extending the embarrassment to others, and thus, independent of the procrastination, defeat the very object in contemplation. In the panic of 1832 the Bank of England advanced on title deeds, bonds, and mortgages, etc., with a promptness and vigor at once honorable to that noble institution and to the government which sanctioned the assumption of such a responsibility. These negotiations were made on the character of the applicants, free from all petty caviling, which saved Great Britain from bankruptcy. It was measure full of patriotism, intelligence, and worthy the occasion. If, then, the Governor of the State of New York will promptly enter in to a correspondence with the United States Treasury to produce an immediate action on the art of Congress, suggesting that in his annual message he will recommend to the Legislature to interpose its credit for the general relief of the public, there can be no doubt that an appropriation will be immediately made.

The commercial community will instantly recommence business, the fiscal operations of the country will assume their wonted activity, and the whole community will soon feel the invigorating influence of restoring order and system in place of alarm and chaos. It is to be credited that a country which has realized hundreds of millions within the last three years, with its public credit undoubted, should relapse from its high state of prosperity by the deduction of less than twenty million dollars' worth of property? That this will be found the maximum of loss, I entertain no doubt. The stock of goods in stores at this season of the year, is well known to be small, and it is equally a fact that a very limited amount of the spring orders have as yet been executed. The open policies of insurance on goods will be found on investigation to attach to valid claims disproportioned to the general apprehension.

To make this investigation the more complete, a general insurance committee should be organized, of active, intelligent merchants of sufficient numbers to appoint adequate sub-committees to make strict inquiries to enable them to compare evidences. It is necessary that promptness of action should be pursued; every delay but increases the embarrassment, and renders the palliative more difficult of application.

At the public meeting which takes place this evening let the Mayor be requested to address the executive of this State, asking him immediately to enter into a correspondence with our representatives, desiring them to bring this interesting subject, important to the United States, instantly before the National Government, and to solicit him to recommend to the legislature to interpose its credit to procure the only prompt relief which the nature of the case will admit. In the meantime, there can be no doubt as to the course proper for our banks to pursue, which the intelligent gentlemen comprising their direction well know how to apply. In short, a discreet forbearance on the part of the banks, and the prompt action of the Government, will save as many of the individuals implicated, relieve the community from further distress, and eventually, give new vigor to our commercial enterprise, the vital spirit of our national prosperity.

Alexander Hamilton

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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March 2001

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