December 16, 1835 — Fire consumed nearly 700 buildings buildings in New York City today. It spread to 17 city blocks — but only killed two people. It cost an estimated $20 million in property damage.
Spotted nearly 100 miles away in Philadelphia, the “Great Fire of New York,” began this evening in a five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street, now known as Beaver Street (at the intersection of Hanover Square and Wall Street).
Gale-force winds and below-freezing temperature made it nearly impossible to contain. Firefighters were forced to drill holes through ice in the river to access water, which later froze in the hoses and pipes. At about 2 a.m., Marines returned with gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard and began to blow up buildings in the fire’s path.
An investigation did not assess the blame and reported that the cause of the fire was a gas pipe that had burst and been ignited by a coal stove.
Words of Wisdom
Many of the stores destroyed in the fire were new, with iron shutters and doors and copper roofs. When they burned, witnesses described appearance of immense iron furnaces in full blast. The heat at times melted the copper roofing, and the liquid ran off in great drops. A gale blew towards the East River. Wall after wall was heard tumbling like an avalanche. Fiery tongues of flame leaped from roof and windows along whole streets, and seemed to be making angry dashes at each other. The water of the bay looked like a vast sea of blood. The bells rang for a while and then ceased. Both sides of Pearl Street and Hanover Square were at the same instant engulfed in flames.
In this midst of this terrible visitation, however, it is consolatory to see the elastic energy of the people. Instead of wasting their time in despondency over this frightful desolation, the whole population seems to on the alert to repair the mischief.