|New York's Great Fire of 1835, as seen from Williamsburg in Brooklyn.|
George Templeton Strong, the 19th century New York City diarist, loved to chase fires. He lived in a place and time place rich in fire hazard. Many a night the alarm bells, the smell of smoke or the lurid flame-painted sky called him to some ravaging conflagration.
Strong began keeping his diary at the age of 15 in 1835. That December, the Great New York Fire destroyed 17 blocks and an estimate 600 buildings. Strong made only passing mention of this fire in his diary. He missed another famous fire in 1865 when Phineas T. Barnum’s American Museum at Broadway and Ann Street burned.
|The P.T. Barnum museum fire in 1865|
On many another day or night, Strong rushed to the scene of a fire. Here is a typically vivid account of a busy night:
Jan. 27, 1840 – This has been an igneous evening. When I left the office at half-past seven, there was a fire in Broad Street, or rather in Water near Broad. . . . I didn’t stay to see the end of the combustion, for there were so many “soap locks” and “round rimmers” and other amiable persons there congregated, and so much hustling and swearing and rowdying going on, that I concluded to clear out – and walked out for a ramble uptown.
Got a little way up when I saw that another fire which had broken out an hour or so before in South Street was making quite a show and the temptation was irresistible so I made for the scene of action, the corner of Dover Street. I couldn’t get in front of the fire and was unable to make out whether two or three stores were burning, but it was quite a showy affair: the fire reflected on the snow and lighted up the masts and rigging of the ships, the groups of firemen on the docks with their engine and lamps, the crowd and bustle in front of the buildings, the raging fire, and just above it the cupola of Thomas H. Smith’s big store blazing away and half-hidden by the eddying smoke – altogether made quite a display. Thomas H.’s store I think must have been saved; I didn’t stay to see the finale, being rather tired of wet feet and obstreperous rowdies. . . .
At three o’clock [this morning] I was waked by a furious alarm of fire which seemed so near and so terrible that I roused the old gentleman and we bundled on our clothes and made streaks. On reaching Wall Street we saw it wasn’t there, but the cinders were showering down like a snow-storm in Pandemonium or a “sulphur shower” in Padalon, and the fire shown as brightly on top of the Exchange and other elevated buildings as if it were only one block off.
It was the Thomas H. Smith store, probably the finest and largest, twice over, in the city, and I never saw such a scene as Peck Slip presented: the store extending from South to Front Streets was burning like a volcano, one body of fire from top to bottom. It was crammed with hemp, cotton, and tea, and the fire was so intense it was impossible to come near it.
There were only two engines and perhaps a couple of hundred men. Several other stores had caught and were burning fiercely; in fact the whole block was on fire from Smith’s store to Dover Street, but everything else sank into insignificance before the big store. It seemed as if the whole area, where the roof had been, 50 feet by 200, wasn’t wide enough for the flames to get out.
Jan. 28, 1840 – The loss last night is estimated at $1,500,000. Everything from Smith’s store to Dover Street on South and Front Streets has gone in fumo. Went down to the scene of action with George Anthon; they were demolishing walls, etc., and I noticed in pulling down a five-story brick front, entirely supported by side-walls, that a rope passed in at the fourth story window and out at the third so as to form a noose, when pulled through the wall shook and tottered and cracked in every direction, actually tore through the wall intermediate the windows, as if it had been made of wet paper, bringing out just bricks enough to come through – a pretty specimen certainly of modern masonry.
Smith’s store still burning fiercely. Two whole cargoes of tea in it just in from Canton, and I noticed the melted lead of the chests streaming down from the piles of ignited matter that are piled within the ruins. It is most fortunate that there was no wind when the fire took place. Had there been any, half the city might have been used up, as the firemen were exhausted and totally inefficient. As it is, the shipping seems to have escaped by miracle; they were mostly frozen in and couldn’t be hauled out of the docks.