Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 19, Part VI

By Holice and Debbie

Mr. William Callender, who is now in his seventy-ninth year, and yet looks and feels as hale and active as a man of fifty, has a vivid recollection of old New York. He was not connected with the Fire Department, but, like all new Yorkers in the olden time, he took a lively interest in all that concerned it, and as often as circumstances permitted attended most of the conflagrations with which the city was visited from time to time. His remembrance of events which occurred more than fifty years ago is most reliable. Of the Great Fire of 1835 he says:

The destruction of that night and the suffering that followed were terrible. If you will suppose that to-night all that portion of the city below Canal Street was absolutely and completely swept away, you can form some idea of the extent of that fire. I was chief clerk of the Police Department from 1834 to 1836, and I had to take statements of the losses sustained in that fire. As well as I can remember they footed up over twenty-two million dollars. Insurance companies were wiped out, and millions of the losses were never made good. The night was bitterly cold--seventeen degrees below zero--and the wind blew a hurricane. I stood at the corner of Wall and Pearl Street, where there is an open space like a funnel. The fire in great sheets of flame leaped across that space, cavorting around in maddening fury. Bales of goods and merchandise that were thrown from the windows were caught up by the wind and whirled about as though they were but flecks of chaff. Rolls of light goods that became untied in their decent from the windows were swept up by the wind and carried off to long distances, and fragments of goods, books, and papers were actually found the next morning on the Jersey meadows. The water supply was had from the reservoir at Thirteenth Street, and from the river, because the hydrants were frozen solid. The tide on the river was so low that tit required six engines on a line to bring one stream to play on the fire. Remember those were only hand engines. Of course such means were utterly inadequate to stem the course of the fire.

"The fire broke out in Hanover Street (then called Merchant Street) in the dry goods store of Comstock & Andrews. It spread with great rapidity, he illuminating gas not long before introduced in the city, and then in general use in the stores serving to help the conflagration and increase the danger. The Dutch Reformed Church in Garden Street, about two blocks away from the outbreak of the fire, was opened, and valuable goods were taken there and stored, in the belief that they would be safe. The scared edifice looked in a brief time like a warehouse. The open space at Hanover Square was also piled up with goods from the threatened and burning buildings. Along the skips on South Street were other heaps of valuable merchandise. But the flames continued to increase in fury and these supposed houses of safety with their contents were one after another consumed. The old church building was completely obliterated, and so was the synagogue on Mill Street near South William Street. The Fire Department was powerless to stem the current of destruction."

The action of the gallant Philadelphia firemen on the occasion of this great conflagration needs to be told in detail, and is best related in the words of Mr. J. B. Harrison, of Summitville, Tenn., who, in 1835, was a member of the Franklin Fire Company of Philadelphia. Mr. Harrison, who is a well-preserved gentleman of sixty-nine years, says:

"In the year, 1835, December 16, the great fire in New York City broke out. Friday, the eighteenth, the mayor of New York send for the firemen of Philadelphia to come and help put it out. As quick as the boys of the Ben Franklin heard it twenty-three of us manned the rope and started for the Walnut Street wharf to get on the boar to cross to Camden and take the railroad. The river was so full of heavy floating ice the boat could not cross. There were other firemen there who, when they found they could not cross the river, returned home. We concluded to go to Kensington road and get on there. When we got to the road we found the ice so thick on the rails that the cars could not run; it was raining and freezing as fast as it fell. We then concluded to go afoot. It was then four o'clock. The word was given. 'Man the rope, boys, we will go to the Trenton bridge and cross the Delaware.' We got to Trenton at twelve o'clock that night, and went to the tavern. When we entered the room we found a large stove red hot. The ice was about an inch thick on our coats and hats. In a short time the ice melted, and the floor was full of water. After we warmed a little, we got up on the seats the best we could to get out of the water and to rest. It was not long, however, \till we got cold, and concluded that we had better start on our journey. The word was given, and away we went for the Sand Hills. It was then Saturday morning about four o'clock, and some of our boys were getting weak. On the way we hired a man with a horse to help us along to Sand Hills.

"About five miles from Sand Hills there was a large house, and some of our boys proposed to stop and get some supper, it being nearly night. We halted and ask them for supper; they would not let us have any, although we offered to pay them well for it. We were forty miles from home, and had not stopped to eat a meal. Some of the boys have given out, and some said they could not go much further. While we were talking tot he man of the house, one of our boys stepped to the back part of the house to get a drink of water, and, seeing through the window a large table filled, he called all the boys to come and look. A large table loaded with everything good to eat that a man could wish for was more than our hungry boys could resist, and so we filed in at one door as a large company of guests entered at another. No one helped us. But we helped ourselves, as it was all before us. When we got through we were polite enough to thank them for supper, and then rolled onto Sand Hills.

"The next day, Tuesday, Fire Company No. 1 came to visit us and offering their service as our escort. We went to see the ruins of the fire, which had been checked by blowing up buildings in advance of it with powder. While we were there we got an invitation to go to a theater, which we accepted, taking Company No. 1 with us. When we got to the theater we told them No. 1 was our escort, and we wanted them to go in with us. They refused, and we told them we would go back to our hotel and spend the evening. We had not gone far until we were hailed by a messenger from another theater; 'Franklin Boys, cone with me; I will take you to a theater where you can go in and take whom you wish.'

"On Wednesday I thought I would go and see an uncle in the upper part of the city. Walking along on the sidewalk I was stopped by a cabmen, who asked: 'Fireman, where are you going?' I told him. He said it was too far for me to walk, and took me in his cab. We could not step out anywhere but we were halted by some one wanting to do a kind act for us. We could not spend any money in New York. I bought a few things and laid down the money to pay for them, which was refused. The merchants said: 'You are welcome to anything you want, your money I will not take.'

"When we got ready to go home the New York firemen pulled our engine to the wharf, the mayor appointed a committee to escort us home, and after that the firemen got to visiting from one city to the other,"

The following was personal recollections of the great fire by Mrs. Mary LeRoy Satterlee:

"The evening of the great fire in New York was intensely cold. The bells began to ring an alarm about eight o'clock P.M., and my husband started at the sound which told him of danger to the large warehouses in Pearl Street, one of which his firm occupied. It seemed as if all the bells were ringing their loudest. Mr. Satterlee left our home in Chambers Street, accompanied by his cousin, who was a clerk in the establishment. As the alarm continued, his nephew, a boy of fourteen years, could no longer be restrained, and followed, leaving me very anxious and alone. About ten o'clock the boy returned, saying that the cold was intense, and it was almost impossible to work the engines and the fire was still raging. He had narrowly escaped being struck by a falling wall. 'Is the store in danger?' I asked. 'No; the wind is driving the flames in an opposite direction, but all hands are helping those whose property is in danger.'

"Eleven o'clock came, and then midnight, to find us sitting shivering, dreading to hear, yet more anxious to see, those who had gone to the scene of the calamity. Suddenly our cousin entered, his arms full of books. Icicles clung to his clothing and stiffened his hair. Entirely exhausted by emotion and fatigue, it was some moments before he could relate how the wind suddenly changed and blew as strongly in the other direction and delivering whole blocks to the seemingly uncontrollable flames. I asked for my husband. He had sent up his books and was working with others to get the most valuable part of their stock of silk goods under the roof of the South Dutch church, never thinking that it would be destroyed before the fire was under control. At three o'clock in the morning--such a very long night--I heard wheels, and my husband returned safe in a carriage piled up with goods. After paying the driver a fabulous sum--fro every vehicle was in demand--the goods were tumbled, the wet with the dry, into the hall.

"Next day the fire demon was subdued, but the ruins smoldered sullenly in the best business part of our fair city. The insurance offices were closed, and ruin to some and great loss to many more made every heart sad. While the fire was at its height, my sister, who lived in the lower part of the city and was watching the lurid sky and the burning buildings, was told by one of the firemen that she had better pack up all valuables, as, if the fire was not mastered before it reached a certain corner near by, several buildings would be blown up, her house among the rest. She was always calm, but energetic, and seeing that the firemen were terribly exhausted, she summoned her servants, and putting all the tea and coffee they had into large boilers, they got together all the provisions in the house, baked the buckwheat meal into griddle cakes, and hailed an early milk cart, and were enabled to feed and refresh every fireman around by calling them into the kitchen ten or twelve at a time. They were almost perished with cold and prostrated by their severe labor."

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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