Summary: New York had three fires that shaped its history, geography, and codes. Learn about the “Three Great New York Fires” here.
A 1776 fire led to building codes that restricted wood building elements in “fire districts.”
An 1835 fire highlighted the lack of water supply and resulted in adding an aqueduct to support water needs.
An 1845 fire proved deadly despite vast infrastructure changes to improve firefighting capabilities.
1776. 1835. 1845. These are the years that haunt New York City’s vibrant history; these are the years of the three Great Fires.
New York has been a major cultural and financial power city throughout history. It’s played a central role in shaping the economy of the United States.
With a population shy of 9 million spread out amongst 302.6 square miles, it's not only the most populous city in the US, but it's also the most densely populated city.
This combination of economic sway and physical density is a breeding ground for growth and forward progress. It also sets the stage for a natural or human-made disaster that sends progress to a screeching halt.
Let’s take a closer look at the three fires that halted the biggest economy in the country.
SEPTEMBER 20, 1776
In 1776, New York City, based in today’s lower Manhattan, had a population of 25,000. The city was also desired territory as the American Revolutionary War raged on. Both Patriots and Loyalists operated within the city limits.
On September 15, 1776, British General William Howe and his forces took control of Manhattan. American troops retreated under General George Washington's command which was a significant victory for the British. Occupying troops quickly made use of abandoned buildings, and the city’s resources became strained.
On September 20th, six days after the British occupation, a fire began in the Fighting Cocks Tavern. An American prisoner of war, John Joseph Henry, served as an eye witness. Nobody knows, or admitted, to the ignition source. Some suggest arson due to coincidentally missing alarm bells and damaged fire equipment.
The fire, fueled by dry weather and strong winds, raced through the high density residential and commercial buildings. Helpless citizens ran for their lives, unable to slow down the fire’s rapid pace which continued into the next day.
The fire eventually burned itself out due to multiple factors: shifts in wind direction, assistance from the British marines, and undeveloped properties that served as buffers.
The city ultimately lost an estimated 400 to 1,000 buildings. That equates to 10 to 25 percent of the city’s property.
Unconfirmed rumors of arson sparked a witch-hunt with over 200 suspects questioned. In further retaliation, the British put the city under martial law. They turned churches into prisons and barracks. Soldiers occupied civilians' houses.
Crime and poor living conditions were rampant until the end of the occupation in 1783.
The fire ultimately led to the 1815 restriction of wood frame doors, shutters, and structures in designated “fire districts” downtown.
DECEMBER 16, 1835
The Erie Canal, constructed ten years prior, connected New York to raw materials from the Midwest such as grain, salt, and lumber. The New York Harbor boasted over half of the country’s exports. New York was officially the top ranking city, even surpassing financial giants Philadelphia and Boston.
The prosperous business, financial, and trade sectors attracted a crowd. The city’s population went up over 60 percent between 1820 and 1830. Population growth outpaced the available resources. Wood building construction was thriving but without the water supply and professional fire department to look after it. Volunteers ran the New York City Fire Department, relying on water from the East and Hudson river.
On the evening of December 16, the five-story warehouse at 25 Merchant Street, went up in flames. A gas pipe had burst. Strong winds assisted its spread to neighboring buildings.
By the time the fire started, the exhausted volunteers had already battled two large fires in freezing temperatures. Unfortunately, fighting these fires depleted both their stamina and supplies.
The exhausted firefighters responded slowly to the calls. Upon arrival, the fire crew had to drill holes through the ice for access to the frozen river. Upon lowering the hoses into the water, the ice immediately re-froze around them. The defeated crew came to the realization that directly extinguishing the fire was not possible.
Firefighters attempted to remove ignition sources from the fire’s path by demolishing nearby wooden structures. These attempts failed as their gunpowder supply ran out. Eventually, Marines returned with gunpowder and successfully demolished the adjacent buildings before the fire arrived. The creation of this firewall helped herd the fire towards the East River where it eventually died out with the help of firefighting crews as far away as Philadelphia.
“South Street is burned down from Wall Street to Coenties Slip,” read the Courier and Enquirer. The fire destroyed 17 city blocks and between 530-700 buildings. Two people died.
The destruction forced the city to re-strategize the city grid during reconstruction. There was $20 million in property damage recorded, equivalent to $508 million today. Banks cooperated in fiscal negotiations to avoid an impending economic collapse. Despite this, 23 out of 26 insurance companies went bankrupt, unable to process the massive influx of claims.
New building codes were instituted for all new buildings to be constructed with brick and mortar. They secured a water supply with the construction of the Old Croton Aqueduct. They funded and revamped the fire services.
This step away from wood is a stark contrast to today’s trend back towards wood beam construction. Australia, Japan, and New Zealand are beginning to embrace and create regulations around timber. Japan, in particular, has made plans for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper.
Even with technology like this fireproof wooden pillar, conversations are arising regarding the safety of wooden structures in high-density areas such as Tokyo. There will need to be bigger discussions and legislature changes before most countries will embrace timber.
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JULY 19, 1845
New York City’s Financial District was still the epicenter of commerce. The population increased 54.4% in the last couple of years with increasing growth.
The bustling manufacturing industry kept wooden warehouses full of product. Oil Merchant and Stearin Candle Manufacturer, J.L. Van Doren, was no exception.
The third floor of his warehouse on 34 New Street housed flammable whale oil used for candles. It was here that the deadliest of the three Great Fires started on July 19, 1845.
Alarms rang out at 3:00 a.m. at the Fire Department of the City of New York. The team, still comprised of volunteer firefighters, arrived at the site to find it was spreading rapidly.
Between 3:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., the fire reached the Crocker and Warren warehouse which stored highly combustible saltpeter (a common ingredient in gunpowder mixtures). Engine Co. 22 arrived to pump water on the warehouse but retreated when they slammed into thick smoke.
Minutes after Engine Co. 22 evacuated, the saltpeter ignited an explosion. The massive explosion flattened six to eight buildings, shattered windows a mile away, and sent people and Engine Co. 22’s vehicle flying through the air. The entire neighborhood was now ablaze.
After 10 hours, a second explosion, and the death of a firefighter, the crew extinguished the fire.
The fire destroyed 345 buildings. The fire claimed $10 million in property damage ($250 million in today’s dollars) as well as the lives of 30 citizens. The cause of the fire remains unconfirmed.
It's scary to realize the fire had the potential to be worse considering the devastating loss of life.
It validated the city's earlier decisions to ban wooden construction in high-density housing and move towards masonry. The water from the new Croton Aqueducts came to the aid of the brave volunteer firefighter's who were finally able to extinguish the fire manually.
New York took on a stance of proactivity instead of succumbing to reactivity. Today, these building materials and the revised street grid still stand today as a stark reminder of the fires and what used to be.