This Month In History
December 2014

This Month in NYS History – The Great Fire of New York – December 16, 1835

The Great Fire of New York – December 16, 1835
The Great Fire of New York – December 16, 1835
On the evening of December 16, 1835, night watchman William Hayes smelled smoke as he patrolled New York City’s financial district. Once on Merchant Street, Hayes quickly discovered the Comstock & Andrews Warehouse, a five-story structure, was ablaze.

Engine Company 1 arrived when the fire was still contained to the warehouse, however in less than a half hour the fire had spread to 50 buildings. Firefighters were unable to contain the flames due to strong winds and frigid temperatures. The temperature dropped to 17 degrees below zero. Most fire hydrants, cisterns, and wells were frozen, making efforts to combat the fire virtually useless. In order to obtain the necessary water, firefighters cut holes through the icy East River. This act proved futile, since the water froze in the fire hoses and pumps.

U.S. Marines from the Brooklyn Navy Yard arrived the next day with gunpowder and to level buildings in the fire’s path, a common technique to combat urban fires. The act created a rubble barrier that blocked the advancing flames. By then, 17 city blocks and 700 buildings were destroyed, including the New York Stock Exchange, the Merchant’s Exchange, hundreds of warehouses, and dry goods importers. Damages were estimated at $20 million. Later, an investigation reported that the cause of the fire was a burst gas pipe that was ignited by a coal stove at the Comstock & Andrews Warehouse.

Philip Hone, former Mayor of New York City from 1825 to 1826, described the night’s events the next day in his diary:

December 17 – How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which ever visited these United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known, with the exception, perhaps, of the conflagration of Moscow, and that was an incidental concomitant of war…Nearly one-half of the first ward is in ashes, five hundred to seven hundred stores, which, with their contents, are valued at $20,000,000 to $40,000,000, are now lying in an indistinguishable mass of ruins…

Within a few years, the financial district was rebuilt. Wooden buildings that were destroyed were quickly replaced by more fire-resistant stone and brick ones. A reform and expansion was of the fire department occurred. Most importantly, The Great Fire led to the creation of New York’s municipal water supply. The Croton Aqueduct was created to bring fresh water from the north. As a result, this was the last great fire of New York.