Joe Bruno on the Mob – The Great New York City Fire of 1835
It was the worst fire in New York City’s history. But that didn’t stop the poor Irish from the slums of the Five Points area, from going on a dazzling display of looting, which led to one of the biggest free champagne parties ever witnessed.
The city was in the throes of one of the coldest winters on record. On the days preceding “The Great Fire,” the temperature had dropped as low as seventeen degrees below zero. By the night of December 16, 1835, there was 2 feet of frozen snow on the ground, and the temperature was exactly zero frigid degrees. It was so cold, both the Hudson River and East Rivers were completely frozen.
Around 9 pm, a watchman (the precursor to a New York City policeman) named Warren Hayes was crossing the corner of Merchant (now Beaver Street) and Pearl Street, and he thought he smelled smoke. He looked up at the last floor of a five-story building at 25 Merchant Street, rented by Comstock and Andrews, a famous dry goods store, and spotted smoke coming out of a window. Unbeknownst to Hayes, a gas pipe had ruptured, and had ignited some coals that were left on a stove. Hayes immediately ran through the streets yelling “Fire!!” In minutes, the great fire bell that stood above City Hall began peeling loudly, summoning what was left of the New York City Fire Department. The bell at the Tombs Prison, about a mile north, also started ringing, summoning the volunteer firemen in that area.
In 1832, New York City was stricken with the worst case of cholera in the city’s history. Four thousand people died and more than half of the city’s quarter million population fled the city in fear. This decimated the New York City Fire Department, and by 1835, the Fire Department had less than half of its previous members. The volunteer fire department that responded on December 16, 1835, had spent the previous night fighting a fire at Burlington Street on the East River, and were now near exhaustion. By the time the local fire department arrived 30 minutes later, due to forty mile an hour winds, the fire had already spread to fifty structures. Buildings were going up in flames on Water Street, Exchange Place, Beaver, Front and South Streets. By midnight, the fire had also consumed Broad and Wall Street, which was the heart of the business and financial center of New York City, if not the entire country. Also engulfed by the conflagration was most of the city’s newspaper plants, retail and wholesale stores and warehouses.
The call went out to every fire department in the city, but it was of no use. Seventy-five hook and ladder companies were at the scene less than two hours after the fire started. Hundreds of citizens pitched in too, carrying water in bucket, pails and even tubs. Unfortunately, because of the cold weather, fire hoses were mostly useless. Also, the entire city’s cistern, wells and fire hydrants were frozen too. Whatever water did stream thinly from the hydrants through the hoses, only went thirty feet into the air, then quickly turned into ice. What made matters worse, due to the high minds, this ice/water mixture, feebly coming out of the hoses, was blown back onto the fireman themselves, and soon scores of firemen were living ice structures. Many firemen poured brandy into their boots, to keep their feet from getting frostbite. Some drank the brandy too, in order to warm the rest of their bodies.
Other firemen raced to the East River and started chopping the ice to reach the water below. Black Joke Engine No. 33 was dragged onto the deck of a ship and started pumping water through the gaps in the ice. It directed the water though three other engines, until it finally reached the fire on Water Street. But in a few hours, those four engines were frozen too, and were no longer of any use.
Two building were saved in an odd way. Barrels of vinegar were rolled out of the Oyster King Restaurant in the Downing Building on Garden Street. This vinegar was poured into several fire engines, and used to douse the fires in the Downing Building and the Journal of Commerce Building next door. But the vinegar ran out and could not be used to save any more structures.
As the city was engulfed in mayhem, a man ran into a church on Garden Street and began playing a funeral dirge on an organ, which could be heard all throughout Lower Manhattan. But in minutes, that church caught fire too, and the organist was seen running from the flaming building.
Soon the fire spread to Hanover Square, Williams Street, Hanover Street and Exchange Place. Burning cloths and twines from various buildings were blown into the air and flew across the East River, igniting the roofs of homes in Brooklyn. The city was ablaze so intensely, smoke could be seen as far south as Philadelphia, and as far north as New Haven. New York City was so desperate, Philadelphia firemen were summoned from 90 miles away to help fight the blaze.
After consulting with experts, Mayor Cornelius W. Lawrence agreed that the fire could be stopped if he blew up certain buildings in strategic places, so that the flames could not travel from building to building. The only problem was, the sale of gunpowder was forbidden in New York City. The nearest ample supply was in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in Red Hook, Brooklyn, as well as on Governor’s Island. Mayor Strong sent word the gunpowder was needed immediately, but it did not arrive until noon of December 17, accompanied by eighty marines and a dozen sailors. The military, with the help of James Hamilton, the son of former United States Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, began blowing up buildings, and in a few hours, the blaze was contained at Coenties Slip.
As downtown Manhattan continued smoldering, hundreds of Irish men, woman and children, from the slums of the Five Points area, rushed into the devastated area, eyes sparkling and hands a-grabbing. For a full 24 hours, the hoodlums looted whatever they could get their hands on; stealing cloaks, frock coats, plug hats, and silk and satin of the finest quality. Cases and kegs of booze, beer and wine were smashed open, and the mob drank heartily in the smoky, frigid streets. Fights broke out between drunk and delirious rioters, over who had the right to steal what. Ten thousand bottles of the finest champagne was stolen too, and what the mob could not guzzle on site, they lugged back to their slums for later consumption.
Noted diarist and future Mayor of New York City, Philip Hone later wrote, “The miserable wretches, who prowled around the ruins, and became beastly drunk on the champagne and other wines and liquors, with which the streets and roads were lined, seemed to exult in the misfortune of others.”
Finally, the area was placed under martial law, and was patrolled by the marines from the Navy Yard, and by the Third and Ninth Military Regiments. But this did not completely stop the looters from continuing their felonious frenzy. Dozens rushed to unaffected areas outside the burn zone, and torched buildings, so they could loot those buildings too. Five arsonists were arrested by the marines, but a sixth one, who was caught torching a building on the corner of Stone and Broad, was captured by angry citizens and immediately hung from a tree. His frozen body stood dangling there and was not cut down by the police until three days later.
From the start of the fire, three days passed until the last spark was extinguished. By then, 17 blocks of lower Manhattan, covering 52 acres, and consisting of 693 buildings, had burned to the ground. Two people were killed and the damages was assessed at 20 million dollars, almost a billion dollars in today’s money.
There was 10 million dollars in insurance money owed for the damages, but only a scant amount of that was ever paid, since the insurance companies and banks had also burned to the ground, forcing them out of business. Not being able to collect on their insurance, and not being able to get loans from banks that no longer existed, hundred of businesses that burned to the ground during “The Great New York Fire of 1835,” never re-opened.
In 1836, the downtown area was rebuilt, with structures made of stone and concrete, which were less susceptible to spreading fires. Some of these building are still standing.