Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 19, Part V

By Holice and Debbie

"Yes, yes," echoed Mr. Wheeler, and, taking a musty book from his pocket, he straightened up, and said: "Don't you want to know the enjines that formed our lines? No. 33 was at the river. She gave water to 26, and 26 gave water to 41. Do you remember the pipe of brandy we had to put in the engine to keep it from freezing?"

"Oh, of course," said Mr. Mills, "I had to put some of the brandy in my boots to thaw my stockings loose. Be the time I made an inquiry some time ago about the members of my company. I found that eighteen are dead, five are living, and three I could find out nothing about. In those days each fire engine was allowed twenty-six men only. The living members are John T. Hall, of Brooklyn; Cornelius T. Nostrand, of Connecticut; Josiah G. Macy, of Nantucket; and Zophar Mills, of New York. Chief Gulick is dead. Do you remember, George, that the Common council blamed him for not stopping the fire, and how we turned that Common council out of office, and elected Gulick register?"

Chief Justice Charles P. Daly has still a vivid recollection of that night. Speaking about it on its anniversary in 1885, Chief Justice Daly observed: "I was nineteen years of age at the time, and I remember on the night of the fire I was attending a lecture at Clinton Hall. When the alarm came I went down-town to see what the fire was. When I got there of course, like other young gentlemen who h ad been attracted to the scene in the same way, that I was, I set to work to save property. We did secure a great deal, although it was not saved. We piled it up in Hanover Square, thinking, of course, that the fire would never reach that locality. But it did, and all the goods that we had been so zealous about were destroyed.

"On the call of the mayor a meeting was held at the Shakespeare Hotel, then the principal hotel of the city, which was situated at the corner of Fulton and Nassau Streets, to take measures for the protection of property, for, of course, the police were utterly insufficient for such an emergency, and I, with others, formed an insurance patrol. I captured, I remember, a negro who was stealing some silks. I was a very active and athletic your man, and I know I had about as much as I could do to secure him, but I did, and he was locked up. I think the fact that it was a remarkably cold night is what impresses itself the most upon my memory. The patrol I spoke of was continued for several days. There was a public meeting to take measures for assisting those who had been made destitute by the fire, and for the organization of plans by which the business firms who were sufferers could continue their business. Many, of course, were ruined, but some went on again. I attended that meeting, and if the records say that I spoke and moved a resolution, I probably did, but I had no impression that I was in public life so early. I was not then studying for the law, but was engaged in some mechanical occupation."

The eagle-like eye of harry Howard, ex-chief of the Volunteer Fire Department, sparkles yet, and when spoke to about the great conflagration, he sighed, and wondered how old the people imagined him to be. "I was only a 'chippy' then," said he. "I was about thirteen years old, and not being of sufficient age to join the Department, was one of the lads known as runners. The runners used to do lots of good work, such as pulling on the ropes and working on the brakes. I used to run with Peterson engine No. 15, of Christie and Bayard Streets. I recollect it was in the evening, and that it was a big fire, and that I couldn't stay at it as long as I wanted to because my boss always made me come home at ten o'clock. I was an indentured boy for eleven years--apprenticed to Abijah Matthews, a cabinetmaker, in Catharine Street. He's dead now. He used to live in bon ton style over on East Broadway. All the big bugs lived over there then, especially the Quakers, who were also scattered through Madison, Rutgers, and Henry Streets. I was disappointed at having to leave the fire, because I gloried in a big blaze, and the greater the havoc the better I was pleased. I recollect that when the fire broke out the old bell on the Dutch Church, corner of Fulton and William Streets, rang as I had never heard it ring. The engine I used to run with was out of service, laid up for repairs, and I ran to the fire with Phenix Engine No. 22, of Hester Street, between Eldridge and Allen Streets. The fire was around Wall Street and Exchange Place, and spreading fast. There was great excitement. Yes, there was lots of stories about the fire, such as a house being saved in the middle of the burned district, and of a man being thrown over five or six blocks and coming down safe. To be respectful you have to listen to these yarns, but you ain't obliged to believe 'em."

"There can be no topic more interesting then this to an old New Yorker," said Mr. George Wilson, of the Chamber of Commerce, "and I have gleaned many interesting particulars relative to it from the survivors of that day. The chamber lost its charter in that fire. It was an immense document, with seals and ribbons, and had been given to us ny George III a few years before the Revolutionary War. It had not yet been found, but I am confident that it exists. These two portraits," he continued, pointing to the full lengths which graced either end of the room, "are of Cadwallader Colden and Alexander Hamilton, painted for us, and are almost all that we saved from the wreck, except the books. They wre carried out of the Merchants' Exchange by patriotic citizens at the risk of their lives. This building--the Merchants' Exchange--which was the finest one destroyed, was one of the largest in the city. The loss of this edifice was a most serious inconvenience to the mercantile community, particularly at such a time of disorder. In it were included not only the rooms I have mentioned, but also those used by the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Brokers' the Post-office; the Ship letter Office and New Room; the Ship Telegraph Office, several newspaper offices and extensive refreshment rooms.

"The garden Street or Exchange Place Church, another prominent building destroyed, was erected in 1807. It was a plain, substantial house, of stone, thirty-six by sixty-six feet, with a gallery. The pastor was the Rev. James M. Matthews. It had in it the bell which was originally brought from Holland, but which was destroyed by the fire. A schoolroom adjoined, and there were in the yard a number of ancient tombstones. This building and its grounds were used as a place of refuge, but without avail. The whole was destroyed. In digging the foundation for the extension to the Mills Building some of the bones of those buried here were found. The Post-office, which was among the places burned, was then very small in comparison with its later proportions. Only one of the clerks of that day still lives, and he has been in bad health for some time. Immediately after the fire the postmaster, Samuel L. Gouverneur, removed it to the Rotunda in the City hall Park, but not without receiving many indications of dissatisfaction from business men, who complained that it was too far up town!"

"Among the well-known business houses which have continued down town to the present time, but were then burned out, were Halsted, Haines & Co., Howland & Aspinwall, James Bleecker & son, and Delmonico's. There are many others, but the firm names have so much changed that they cannot be recognized readily. Howland & Aspinwall, Aymar & Co., and S. V. S. Wilder, three of the largest mercantile houses, gave notice promptly after the fire that they would cash all paper of theirs which was not in the hands of the sufferers, and their exchange was followed by many others. Three thousand clerks, porters, and carmen, were thrown out of employment, many of them having families to support. Very heavy losses were inflicted upon French commerce. Only three French importers escaped. One cargo alone, which had arrived and was destroyed before distribution, was estimated to be worth two hundred thousand dollars. There was little English insurance capital here, owing to restrictive laws against foreign companies, and the loss fell almost entirely upon American companies, many of which were ruined.

"The naval storehouses in Brooklyn, lying directly across the river, caught fire several times, but the flames were promptly subdued. The sails of the schooner 'Alonzo,'

lying at the wharf at Brooklyn, were burned. The passengers on the Hudson River boats saw the flame from the Highlands forty-five miles distant, and the light, so says an old chronicler, was also distinctly seen in New jersey as far as Cranberry. Assistant Postmaster Gaylor, then a boy, recollects seeing it from the court house at White Plains, and others saw it from Morristown, N. J.

"Shanties or sheds were erected near the ruins in South Street, into which the damaged merchandise was removed, and Castle Garden was taken as a depot for the reception of goods which were unclaimed and of which the owners were unknown.

"The Journal of Commerce building, which was in the rear of Dr. Matthew's church, was saved by the application of vinegar. Several hogsheads were in the rear of the lot and were unheaded, parts of the fluid being thrown on the roof and other exposed places. Downing saved his restaurant in the same manner.

"The losses of Stephen Whitney, the merchant, and next to John Jacob Astor the richest man in New York, were reported to be immense--in the neighborhood of half a million dollars. Great complaints were made of the defective architecture of the buildings which were burned. Most of the bricks which wre lying in heaps through the streets looked as clean as if mortar had never touched them. In the old buildings, the newspapers of the day said, the mortar was harder than the bricks themselves. The great extent of the fire was ascribed to pernicious inventions to save money. Wooden gutters, cornices and window frames were common. Copper gutters and iron shutters frames and shutters would have saved the Exchange. The new and lofty building at the corner of Wall and William Streets was on fire at the cornice several times and with difficulty saved.

"One building was saved in the burned district in Water Street. It was built by Carman for Herman Thorne. He was told that the structure must be fireproof, and declared that it should be so. Although the building stood surrounded by a sea of flames it redeemed his promise and remained uninjured with its goods safe within it.

"While the fire was going on, Louis F. Wilkins, a midshipman, then recently returned from a voyage to the Pacific, heard the agonizing cries of a woman, whose child was left in a building already in flames. He immediately forced his way up stairs, in spite of the warnings of the firemen that he would certainly perish, and rescued the child, which was not in the least frightened, but was, on the contrary, pleased with the brilliancy of the light. He restores it to its distracted mother, who with frantic joy threw her arms about him and exclaimed, 'My God! My God! Thou hast not forsaken me.' Persons were reported to be killed by the fire, but the rumors did not seem to be authenticated. John Lang, of the New York Gazette, died shortly after from the excitement and worry the fire occasioned. Among other things noted was that there was danger from melted lead, and that the saltpeter in warehouses in Front Street, near Old slip, exploded, with a loud noise."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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