An 1835 fire burns a quarter of New York City

GreatfirebynicolinocalyoIt 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.

GreatfireCUNYmap“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]

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15 Responses to “An 1835 fire burns a quarter of New York City”

  1. Artnoize Says:

    There are 2 Water Streets in Manhattan…..
    The first is In the Financial District, and the other one in the Lower East Side….How did that happen?

    • Edward Says:

      Really only one Water Street that’s broken up into three sections actually. Construction of Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges and their approach ramps, and later razing of streets to build housing projects along East River, caused Water Street to stop and start in three different sections. Pretty sure the numbering system remains sequential (ie: the building numbers don’t begin at “1” for each section of Water Street).

  2. rocco dormarunno(akafivepointsguy) Says:

    Many historians claim that this fire was a contributing factor to the U.S. fiscal Panic of 1837. Considering roughly $20 million in losses were caused by the hungry fire, it must have had some effect on the national economy.

  3. Edward Says:

    “A quarter of the city’s business district [was] destroyed, including every one of the stone Dutch houses that had survived the fires of the Revolution…”

    For a student of Dutch NY history, that part always breaks my heart. Not one trace of our Dutch forefathers in all of Lower Manhattan survives.

    • Upstate Ellen Says:

      And I always thought the old Dutch buildings were willfully demolished or allowed to decay… I never realized they were destroyed in a fire!

  4. wildnewyork Says:

    I hear you. Not one!

  5. EV Grieve Etc.: Mourning Edition « NYC Real Estate News Says:

    […] When a lot of NYC burned down (Ephemeral New York) […]

  6. chas Says:

    So was the cause ever determined?

  7. mcheshire Says:

    Reblogged this on CROTON  |  History & Mysteries and commented:
    Here is an account of the devastating New York City fire of 1835 that led to the construction of the Croton Dam and Aqueduct.

  8. 1857: The Horses and Cows Caught in the Firestorm at Wofle’s Farm, Staten Island | The Hatching Cat Says:

    […] Wolfe’s counting house at 109 Front Street burned down during the great fire of 1835, which broke out on December 16. The two-day conflagration destroyed the New York Stock Exchange […]

  9. The past lives of a modest 1808 house in Tribeca | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Almost no homes from the 18th century survive in the city of today, thanks in part to fires—like the great fire of 1835. […]

  10. The past lives of a modest 1809 house in Tribeca ⋆ New York city blog Says:

    […] Almost no homes from the 18th century survive in the city of today, thanks in part to fires—like the great fire of 1835. […]

  11. A 19th century mayor’s fascinating social diary | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] 1836 he marked the one-year anniversary of the “great fire”—an 1835 blaze that destroyed much of downtown (left). “To the honor of the merchants, and as an evidence of the prosperity […]

  12. Portraits of the street sellers of 1840 New York | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Gotham, his dramatic scenes of the Great Fire of 1835 and narrative landscapes of the Manhattan waterfront made his name as an exiled European […]

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