It started on the frigid night of December 16. Flames broke out inside a warehouse on Pearl Street, the center of New York’s dry-goods district.
“The city’s undermanned volunteer fire brigades rushed to the scene, but what little water could be pumped from the nearby hydrants turned to ice in the frigid night air, and the crews—exhausted from fighting a blaze the night before—were soon completely overwhelmed,” wrote Ric Burns and James Sanders in New York: An Illustrated History.
[Above: the fire as seen from Williamsburg, by Nicolino Calyo]
With help from strong winds, flames leaped from shops to warehouses to the majestic Merchants Exchange (below, in a 1909 illustration).
Within hours, 20 blocks and 600 buildings bounded by South, Broad, and Wall Streets and Coenties Slip, were ablaze.
New York had experienced devastating fires before, particularly in 1776. This fire was something else though—so intense, it could reportedly be seen from Philadelphia.
The cold made it tough to get under control. “Whiskey was poured into boots to prevent [firefighters'] toes from icing up,” states Paul Hashagen in Fire Department, City of New York.
“By the time the flames were out, a quarter of the city’s business district had been destroyed, including every one of the stone Dutch houses that had survived the fires of the Revolution,” wrote Burns and Sanders.
Hundreds of businesses were ruined. Most of the city’s insurance companies went bankrupt. Amazingly, only two people perished.
As horrific as it was, the Great Fire of 1835 had a few upsides. It forced the city, which rebuilt within a year, to organize a professional fire department and shore up building codes.
And it showed the need for a modern water-supply system, resulting in the opening of the Croton Aqueduct and reservoir on 42nd Street seven years later.
[Map of the destroyed area: CUNY]