Little Bits of History

July 19

Posted in History by patriciahysell on July 19, 2017

1845: The Great New York City Fire breaks out at 2.30 AM. The third story of the JL Van Doren, Oil Merchant and Stearin Candle Manufacturer at 34 New Street in Manhattan was the site of the original blaze. They sold whale oil which helped to quickly spread the fire to surrounding wooden buildings. The City Hall alarm bell rang about 3 AM and fire fighters converged on the area. The Fire Department of the City of New York (FDNY) was all volunteer at the time and under the command of Chief Engineer Cornelius Anderson, who was on the scene.

The area of the fire was mostly older buildings and the wooden structures sped the fire along. FDNY personnel were joined by members outside their jurisdiction. Fire chiefs and crews came in from Brooklyn, Newark, and Williamsburg. The Croton aqueduct had been completed in 1842 and was able to provide water for those fighting the blaze. Within a couple hours of starting, the blaze had traveled along to a large, multistoried warehouse occupied by Crocker & Warren, where saltpeter was stored. Water was being pumped on the building even from inside the burning structure, but it still caught fire. All were able to escape the building before it exploded between 3.30 and 4 AM. The burning debris flew outward and began more fires.

While no one died in the explosion, the fire engine at the scene was demolished and several of the firemen were injured. There was speculation gunpowder had also been stored in the warehouse, but this proved erroneous. It took ten  and a half hours for the blaze to be extinguished. In that time 345 buildings were destroyed for a loss of $5 to 10 million or about $129 million today. There was much looting during and after the fire, in both businesses and private residences. A total of 26 civilians and 4 firemen died as much of what is today the Financial District in New York City was destroyed.

This was the last of three major fires in New York City, the others in 1776 and 1835. In 1815, the city had banned new construction of wood frame buildings in the densest parts of the city. The fire was halted by the newer construction after the 1835 fire. The newer stone and masonry buildings with iron roofs and shutters were not consumed in the recent blaze. Even with this improvement so clearly demonstrated, it was seen as a time for more proactive stances to fire prevention and firefighting. The city established the Exempt Fireman’s Company whose members were firemen exempt from militia and jury duty.

If Prometheus was worthy of the wrath of heaven for kindling the first fire upon earth, how ought all the gods honor the men who make it their professional business to put it out?  – John Godfrey Saxe

I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.  – Kurt Vonnegut

If you put out the fire, you won’t have to jump out the window!  – Andy Freidricks

When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished.  What he does after that is all in the line of work.  – Edward F. Croker


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