The Great Fire of 1835 Helped Create Modern New York City

December 16, 1835 saw Manhattan covered in snow by a gale. The merchant Gabriel Disosway remembered how when night arrived it was “the coldest one we had had for thirty-six years.” Then at 9 p.m., members of the City Watch discovered a fire burning at Comstock & Andrews on Merchant Street. Officer William Hays recalled how “We found the whole interior of the building in flames from cellar to roof … Almost immediately the flames broke through the roof.”

They raced to put out the fire. They tapped nearby hydrants, and in search of additional water headed to the foot of Wall Street to break through the East River’s ice and pump more. They couldn’t stop the fires because it was too cold outside.
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Crooked streets filled lower Manhattan, and within 15 minutes, Watchman Hays realized that “fully fifty buildings were blazing.” Former Mayor Philip Hone rushed down from his Broadway home, and later wrote how “the progress of the flames, like flashes of lightning, communicated in every direction, and a few minutes sufficed to level the lofty edifices on every side.”

Merchants trying to sell their inventory emptied stores throughout Manhattan. Mahogany tables, wine crates, silk ties, broadcloths and cutlery littered the streets. A prominent spot on the city’s eastern edge was Hanover Square. As goods piling up, many people broke furniture and trampled fabric. According to New York Sun, “a gust of flame, like a streak of lightning,” shot “across the square, blown by the strong wind, and set fire to the entire mass, which it in a few moments consumed to cinders, and then communicated to the houses opposite.”

Soon downtown Manhattan—for a third of a mile from Broad to South Streets and a similar distance down to Coenties Slip—was engulfed in flames. Disosway climbed to a building’s roof to get a sense of the extent of the blaze, and wrote how it was an “ocean of fire, as it were, with roaring, rolling, burning waves … tottering walls and falling chimneys, with black smoke, hissing, crashing sounds on every side.”

Businesses, churches, houses, shops, and homes were all destroyed in the blaze. The heat was so intense that metal shutters and doors were melted. Disosway then reported how “a terrible explosion occurred near by with the noise of a cannon. The earth shook.” Soon “a second blast took place, then another and another.” The detonations were produced by saltpeter stored in a warehouse. Gunpowder, liquid and liqueur casks also exploded. On Manhattan’s docks, barrels of sperm and other oils ignited. The containers containing Turpentine were filled with the substance, which was then released into the environment. New York Evening Post reported that the contents “poured down into the slip like a stream of burning lava, and spread out over the surface of the river for several hundred yards, sending up a bright flame, and giving the appearance of the river being on fire.”

An illustration showing New York buildings in ruins after the Great Fire of 1835.
Nicolino Calyo/Kean collection/Getty ImagesIllustration showing New York’s buildings in ruin after the Great Fire of1835.

At one in the morning, all the fire hoses laid frozen, and Mayor Cornelius Lawrence, fire chief James Gulick, James Alexander Hamilton—Alexander Hamilton’s son—and others decided they needed to blow up buildings to create a fire break and staunch the flames. Hamilton began to search for gunpowder in local stores. New York AmericanCharles King, editor, set out for Brooklyn Navy Yard in search of more explosives. Robert Temple (Army Lieutenant) and two more went to Governors Island, where they discovered 100-pound powder kegs.

Forty-Eight Exchange Place was selected as the place to explode. They lit the flames through the hatchway and then set the cask inside the cellar to distribute powdered material across the floor. Hamilton lit the fuse, and as former fire chief Uzziah Wenman recalled, “the whole building seemed to rise up and quiver.”

They had to blow up No. 2 because the explosion didn’t go as planned. 52. This explosion did not slow down the fire and other buildings were soon destroyed. In the wee hours of December 17th, the seemingly unstoppable march of the fire had stopped. Hamilton returned to his residence and recalled, “when I got to my parlor I fainted.”

It was the area where the Great Fire took place It was primarily a commercial area, so only a handful of people were killed. However, the fire did not end there. At a cost equivalent to $600,000,000 today, 674 buildings were demolished at $20M. James Gordon Bennett toured what quickly became known as “Burnt District.” The New York Herald editor wrote about the devastation, families’ wrapped in blankets, merchants weeping, crews trying to salvage goods, others making bonfires with once expensive products to keep warm, and the difficulty of getting through what were once streets since they were littered with merchandise and heated bricks. As Bennett observed there was “nothing but smoke, and fire, and dust.”

 Ruins of the Merchant's Exchange N.Y. after the Great Fire of 1835.
Division of Art, Prints, and Photographs, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach, The New York Public Library Print Collection Ruins of the Merchant’s Exchange N.Y. after the Great Fire of 1835.

When Hone surveyed the wreckage, he found himself “fatigued in body, disturbed in mind.” Newspapers filled columns with lists of losses. Only one merchant suffered a loss of $300,000. Nicholas Biddle, the president of the Second Bank of the United States, came to town and offered the bank’s help. The Treasury Department ordered the Customs Department extend time for bonds to be issued to those who were affected. Albany authorized $6 million of loan. This is equivalent to approximately $180 millions today.

Arthur Tappan, the silk merchant and builder was summoned by Arthur Tappan on the morning following the fire. The Board of Aldermen discussed how to improve and repair the streets. The streets were fixed and widen by January 1836. American Monthly Magazine reported, “the click of trowels is already heard among the half-cooled bricks, and the dust of mortar is even now mingling with the smoke from the still shouldering ruins.” New buildings rose along Wall Street and elsewhere in the Burnt District, and Mary Sturges observed how the city was “like a Phoenix from her ashes.”

New York City, at that time, was situated on the south end of the island. While a grid street system for Manhattan had been developed, Manhattan was only about 14 meters wide.Th St. To the north, there were many farms and villages. As the downtown rebuilt, more avenues opened, new houses were built, and businesses and religious groups that needed additional space moved to larger spaces.

Businesses were expanding and people in search for employment and migrants looking to find a home moved into the area. There were many new stores, restaurants, hotels, and people flooded the streets. Newsboys and housewives, as well as businessmen, clerks and merchants opened up, and there was a lot of pedestrian activity. This activity created congestion, but it also brought dangers. The 1839 Census showed that the New York Mirror listed some of the perils and nuisances on the streets, from “the villainous noise made by the milkmen” to “street-beggars by the thousand; hand organ and monkey, singing girls.”

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Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, inventors like Samuel F.B. Morse and Richard Upjohn, architects, settled in the city. P.T. Barnum founded the New York Philharmonic, which began giving concerts. Barnum founded his American Museum and its lies. Barnum’s American Museum was founded with spurious displays. The wealthy supported cultural institutions such as Astor Place Opera House. They browsed grand shops and attended fine theaters. While the working classes frequented music halls, taverns, and oyster cellars.

New York experienced a rapid growth rate, increasing its population from 268,089 people in 1835 to 813.669 by 1860. Change came faster and faster with the building of an aqueduct that brought a large supply of water to town—to quench the city’s thirst, fight fires and fuel industry—gas lighting, transportation, heating, cooking stoves, and ice boxes. The census of 1855 listed 31 shipbuilders living in New York, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg. It was also a key player in the cotton industry, as local businesses received $0.40 per dollar of southern cotton. In 1840-1861 investment in manufacturing grew nearly 550%. From 1855 to 1861 the value industrial products rose by 60%. Rev. Henry Ward Beecher was the brother to Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote how he could see from his window in Brooklyn a “great city with a thousand shining eyes, couched down, but always watching, always murmuring, night and day, like some huge, muttering behemoth.”

The streets that ran more than 4 miles to the north of the Great Fire blazed were lined with homes by the Civil War’s eve. When the grid was being constructed, little thought had been given to the creation of parks. However, the rapid rise in industry and phenomenal growth made the town leaders realise they had to save what little was left. Mirror called “the lungs of the city.” Thankfully in the mid-1850s more than one-square mile in the center of the island was set aside for Central Park, a spot that quickly became a vast and permanent place for New Yorkers to escape the frenetic pace of a comunity These days, it seems that there are never any peace.

Learn more The Empire State Building’s History Offers Hope for Today

More importantly, those changes set the scene for bigger and better ones half a century later. It was planned to settle the area in northern Manhattan that is still undeveloped. After the area was laid out and construction began on the island, officials then started looking at the area around it. January 1, 1898 saw the creation of Greater New York. Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens joined forces. The city of 65 square miles became a metropolis covering 304 sq. mi. New York City was the 2nd largest in the world at that time, following London.

“The end of the old New-York and the beginning of the greater city was marked last night by perhaps the biggest, nosiest and most hilarious New Year’s Eve celebration that Manhattan Island has ever known,” reported the New York Tribune. “The air was full of the din of hundreds of horns and thousands of shouts. The streets were full of a howling, pushing, shoving, hilarious multitude.”

Manhattan Phoenix Book Jacket


Daniel S. Levy is author of Manhattan Phoenix: New York’s Emergence and Great Fire of 1835Now available at Oxford University Press


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