Tucked inside a box in the museum is a cluster of glass beads identified by a handwritten tag as fused together in the 1835 Great Fire of New York City. The box belonged to John Fanning Watson (1779–1860), a banker, antiquarian, and author of several books including Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time and Historic Tales of Olden Time: Concerning the Early Settlement and Advancement of New York City and State. Watson stored an odd assortment of buttons, arrowheads, threads, textile fragments, and other small objects in this box, but the beads are the only memento related to the fire. How did Watson, a resident of Philadelphia, come to possess the beads?
Clues are found in the library’s manuscript collection of Watson Family Papers, which include twelve diaries describing his travels to places in New England and the Mid-Atlantic over a fifty-year period beginning in 1804. In his 1835 diary, Watson recounted his arrival in New York City on Christmas Day, eight days after the fire, to “visit the ruins, & to see the havoc & desolation which the devouring element had inflicted.”
The fire started the night of December 16 in a five-story warehouse on Merchant Street in southeast Manhattan and raged through this congested commercial area bounded by Broad Street on the west, the East River on the east, Coenties Slip on the south, and Wall Street on the north. Weather conditions hindered attempts to quench the flames, as firefighters battled fierce northwest winds, sub-zero temperatures, and frozen hydrants, forcing them to cut holes in the ice-covered East River to access water for their hoses and pumps, only to have it freeze again. Further hampering efforts and slowing the response time of fire engines reaching the blaze was the nearly unnavigable maze of narrow, crooked streets.
Uncontrollable, the fire marched north to Wall Street, where it consumed the three-story Merchants’ Exchange, symbol of the financial center for a mere eight years, a marble building thought to be fireproof. Desperate measures were then taken. During the early hours of December 17, gunpowder from the Brooklyn Navy Yard was used to blow up buildings to arrest the fire’s progress north of Wall Street. The conflagration could be seen hundreds of miles away, spurring neighboring towns’ fire companies to rush to New York City’s aid. Even Philadelphia sent firemen and engines via railroad, a recent development Watson marveled over for its “rapid progress…over the former obstacles of natural roads.”
When the flames finally died down, the devastation was staggering: nearly 50 acres or 17 city blocks in ruin, nearly 700 buildings destroyed, an estimated $20 million in property loss, the financial district leveled—all due to a burst gas pipe. Watson’s statistics, culled from newspaper articles, record slightly lower numbers that do not detract from the magnitude of the losses. Despite the enormous property damage, very few fatalities occurred as the fire happened in the overnight hours in a commercial, not residential, area of stores and warehouses.
Watson’s eyewitness account of the aftermath of “the greatest wonder & calamity, & befalling the greatest city” transports readers to the city reeling from the catastrophe, small fires still smoldering, and acrid smoke lingering in the air. Even a week later, merchants were carrying their goods of textiles, cotton, tobacco, coffee, lead, and iron out of cellars hoping to salvage whatever they could. Remains of merchandise littered the streets, tempting looters who searched through piles for profit and personal gain; rag pickers gathered textile remnants while others hunted for undamaged pieces outside jewelry and china stores, “where the masses of broken china was vetrified in clusters.” Watson himself acquired a whole ewer from John Greenfield & Sons’ store on Pearl Street, yet is silent on whether he purchased or found the glass beads. However he obtained them, Watson rescued the beads from being a forgotten relic of the fire.
Watson not only observed the damage, he also commented on reasons for the fire and presciently discussed potential outcomes. He noted that the lofty four-to-five story elevation of many wooden buildings, the geography of the neighborhood, and an inadequate water supply contributed to the spread. Wondering if insurance companies could cover the extensive damage turned out to be accurate as many went bankrupt after their office buildings burned down and later moved their headquarters to Hartford, Connecticut. Another irreversible loss was the fire’s obliteration of the city’s original Dutch settlement.
In only a few years, as befitting the “bold & dashing, & active spirit of its inhabitants,” New York City quickly rebuilt lower Manhattan with stone and brick buildings in place of wooden ones, widened streets, began construction on the Croton Aqueduct, and expanded and equipped fire companies. These steps insured that such a devastating fire, “the thing of a Century,” did not happen again.
To read Watson’s account of the fire and his other adventures, visit the online collection of his travel diaries with transcriptions at: http://content.winterthur.org:2011/cdm/landingpage/collection/watsonfam.
Post by Jeanne Solensky, librarian of the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera.