“Gleanings and Recollections: No. 1, The New York Fire,” by Eliza Leslie (from Parley’s Magazine, January 1838; pp. 30-33)
Though fires are unfortunately very frequent in New York, yet the tremendous conflagration which, on the night of December 16, 1835, laid waste so considerable a portion of the mercantile part of the city, is that which is particularly designated by the above title. The light of this awful fire, spreading far and wide over the lurid sky, illuminated the whole town of New York, and was discerned on the horizon at an almost incredible distance. It was seen from the north-east end of Philadelphia about ten o’clock, and it is said that the Kensington firemen ran with their engine a considerable distance on the Bristol road, but not being able to find the fire, they returned, supposing it in some very distant place; but still not for a moment guessing that it could be as far off as New York, upwards of ninety miles.
The following April I chanced to be in New York, and was conducted by a gentleman all over the burnt district, as it is called. It was a chilly cloudy afternoon, so early in the month that every thing still wore much of its winter aspect, and the dreary look of the sky seemed to correspond with the desolation around. As yet the rubbish was but partially removed; it was only in a few places that the stores were rebuilding, and none were finished or occupied. A few months before, I had been escorted through this district by a merchant who was desirous of showing me the “business part” of the city, and by whom various things belonging to it were circumstantially explained to me. The Exchange and the numerous fine buildings connected with commerce, the lofty ranges of stores, the number of streets exclusively devoted to wholesale trade, excited my surprise and admiration; giving me the highest possible idea of the wealth, enterprize, and importance of the great emporium of my city. And now, in one single night, all had been prostrated. Many who at sunset on the 16th of December were rich and prosperous, found themselves on the next rising of that sun reduced to indigence.
At the time of my visit to the burnt district it would have been difficult, I think, for a stranger to have found his way through it without a guide. To unpractised eyes all traces of the direction of the streets were obliterated. From Fulton street to the East river lay a desart [sic] of ruins. There was no longer any pavement to be seen; neither foot-way nor carriage-way could be distinguished. The whole was covered with an uneven coating of clay, mortar, &c., beneath which were imbedded hillocks of calcined bricks, burnt wood, and other relics of devastation. As landmarks in this dreary waste, stood the
roofless walls of an old church, and a lofty store that, having been built effectually fire-proof, remained uninjured amidst the flames that were prostrating all around it. Often, affixed to a heap of discoloured bricks (all that remained of his former place of business) we saw a piece of board denoting, for instance, that “John Williams had removed his store to No. 28 Beaver street,” or something to that purpose. These were melancholy memorials.
We found a lump of nails all fused together into a shapeless mass of iron veined with the brass that had once formed their heads. I had been already shown, by my friends, many similar relics of this memorable fire; particularly some misshapen blocks of beads, the glass of which having melted and run together, presented a singular assemblage of colours.
My companion described to me with much graphic eloquence the horrors of that disastrous night, and showed me the place where the fire having extended to the stores immediately on the wharf, the ships cast loose their moorings to take refuge in the middle of the river from the flames that had nearly caught their rigging[.] The night was intensely cold, the wind high, and the ground slippery with frozen snow; but there was scarcely a man in New York who was not present on this dreadful occasion; and most of the females were up and drest all night, anxiously watching from their windows the progress of the devouring element, and listening to the noises that accompanied it.
Imagine the loud and incessant ringing out of the church bells at the commencement of the fire; the rattling of all the engines of the city and suburbs; the shouts of the firemen, and the glare of their torches; the terrible roaring of the volumes of flame that poured from the windows of the burning houses, while the shivered glass came jingling down in showers; the heavy tumbling of the rafters as they successively gave way; the blazing roofs sending up their sheets of fire, and then sinking in with a frightful crash, and replacing the flames with thick clouds of black smoke mounting far into the glowing crimson of the sky. The myriads of sparks from the burning shingles that, blown from the roofs by the wind, were wafted wildly through the air; the horror depicted in the upturned faces of thousands of spectators, looking white in the red glare around them, many of whom saw the whole of their property consuming before their eyes with a rapidity which nothing seemed to check, as the flames flew from house to house, catching another and another, till whole streets became a preay to their fury. And it was only by blowing up with gunpowder some buildings which stood directly in its way that the course of the fire was at last arrested, in leaving it nothing to feed upon.
The night was so cold that the water froze in the engines. Many persons
went about wrapped in blankets picked up in the streets, where whole bales of them were scattered. The ground was strewed also with pieces of rich silks and muslins, elegant shawls, and boxes of ribbons, feathers and flowers crushed and trampled in the snow; and in the morning, masses of rich lace were cut with hatches out of the frozen gutters. The air was scented with the various articles that were burning, particularly with large quantities of coffee which in many places lay ankle deep next day. All the drays and carts and even hackney coaches were in requisition for the purpose of conveying away merchandise from stores that were in danger. Clerks and their employers were hard at work the whole night, and much was saved by almost incredible exertions.
I was told of a merchant that, during the fire, gave fifteen hundred dollars to a carman for his horse and cart; presenting him on the spot with a check to that amount; but in this cart the gentleman and his assistants saved, in the course of the night, goods to the amount of ninety thousand dollars.
Such was the rapidity of the fire that many houses caught at a time when they were supposed to be in comparative safety. My informant had gone in, with some other gentlemen, all greatly fatigued, to Delmonico’s restaurant for the purpose of refreshing themselves with a cup of chocolate, but, while drinking it, they perceived the flames bursting through one corner of the room, and were compelled to make a hasty escape into the street.
A great quantity of valuable goods was carried into the old Dutch church near the Exchange as to a place of safety, and deposited in the aisles and pews. But the church itself took fire, and the whole interior was consumed. After it caught, some person, as I was told, went up (strangely enough) into the organ-loft and played Mozart’s Requiem, as the last notes that were ever to sound from that instrument so soon to be reduced to ashes.*
Shortly before the fire, this church had been given up by the congregation on account of a large and very visible crack which ran from top to bottom of one of the walls, and which was justly considered to render the building unsafe. When I saw it, some months afterwards, though the fire had destroyed the roof and the whole inside of the church, the wall was still standing in spite of the crack.
The news of the conflagration having arrived by express from New York while the fire was still burning, several companies of the Philadelphia firemen set out immediately with their engines, to the assistance of the sister city, and arrived in time to be of essential service. As the flames smouldering among the rubbish were continually bursting out
* The regular and unconscious motion of the clock (after a church has caught fire) going steadily on and striking the hour even while the flames are ascending the steeple, is one of the singular features of a conflagration.
again, it was two or three weeks before the engines could safely cease to play on the ruins. Indeed even in the spring, when they were clearing away the ground for the purpose of rebuilding, fire was still found in many of the cellars.
The burnt district is rebuilt, and is again the mart of business; but a great number of industrious citizens have not yet recovered the ruin that was brought upon them by the events of that disastrous night.