Tag Archives: Great Fire of 1835

Visit the glorious High Bridge, New York’s tribute to the ancient world

The thirst for water has transformed New York.

The Dutch were sold on the island’s placement in the harbor at the mouth of the mighty Hudson River, making it a convenient waypoint for explorers and traders. Soon its ports had built the foundation for New York’s—and later America’s—financial sector.

The city’s most influential nineteenth-century businessman, Cornelius Vanderbilt, got his feet wet in business first with ferries and steamships before building his mighty railroad empire. Manhattan is surrounded by water, and yet early New York would almost be undone due to a lack of it.

Traces of the city’s centuries-long quest for clean drinking water can be found from the island’s tip to its top—from the site of spring water wells down in Bowling Green to the relics of old water systems that we’ve visited in the past few chapters.

But no monument to freshwater dominates quite like the High Bridge, the Romanesque wonder linking Manhattan to the Bronx over the Harlem River.

Courtesy NYPL

For many decades this majestic artifact, seemingly plucked from the hills of ancient Gaul, was a vital link in that great engineering triumph: the Croton Aqueduct.

With the dense river traffic below and the icky-brackish composition of the surrounding rivers, early New Yorkers had to look beyond their waterways for drinking water. They dug cisterns and hunted down springs, but these couldn’t support the growing city.

By the late eighteenth century, Collect Pond, a so-called freshwater source located northeast of today’s City Hall, had become polluted by the industries that surrounded it, and valiant efforts to bring water from other sources during the Colonial era were dampened by debt and war.

Courtesy MCNY

In 1799 future vice president/murderer Aaron Burr hatched a grand business plan to construct a reservoir system that would distribute water via an elaborate network of hollowed-out logs. (Above: The reservoir and grandest structure of the Manhattan Company system, pictured here in 1825.)

Unfortunately for parched New Yorkers, he ended up using most of the funding for his company to establish a successful bank instead. More than a century and a half later, Manhattan Company merged with Chase National Bank to become Chase Manhattan, known today simply as “Chase,” one of the largest banks in the world. But his water distribution efforts ended up being woefully inadequate, and left Manhattan high and dry.


By the 1830s the city was on the verge of a health crisis, as putrid water, poor sanitation, and all-around squalid living conditions culminated in a series of health epidemics and breakouts—which only heightened the urgent need for clean water.

In April 1835 New Yorkers were so desperate for a freshwater supply that they voted in favor of a seemingly impossible plan: a pipeline that would bring the pure waters of the Croton River, forty miles north in Westchester County, down to city residents. Only underscoring the emergency, eight months later the Great Fire of 1835 would ravage the city. The aqueduct couldn’t be constructed quickly enough.



The elaborate project employed thousands of mostly Irish immigrants for many years (1837–1842). They constructed a sophisticated system of iron piping and brick masonry, which drew upon gravity to run the water through pipes and over arches, across the lush terrain of Westchester, and through the small towns that would later form the nucleus of the Bronx.

But how would the water get into the island of Manhattan? The aqueduct’s architects would need to find a way to keep it flowing across the Harlem River. Drilling technologies were not advanced enough in the 1840s to allow for a tunnel, so planners thought bigger—and higher.


The High Bridge, at an elegant 1,450 feet long, is the oldest surviving bridge in New York. Completed in 1848, it not only brought the Croton water into the city, but it also made one heck of a statement noticed around the world.

New Yorkers had pulled off a technological miracle, borrowing engineering and architecture principles not attempted, on this scale, since the glory days of the Roman Empire. They were changing the course of one river forty-one miles away and sending its waters high above another.

“Water! Water!” wrote diarist and former mayor Philip Hone on October 12, 1842, “is the universal note which is sounded through every part of the city, and infuses joy and exultation into the masses.”

When the water was finally turned on—flowing on October 14, 1842—the city threw a bash bigger than any since the expulsion of the British in 1783.

The water flowed through pipes across the High Bridge and to a receiving reservoir in the area of today’s Central Park, and from there to a distributing reservoir at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

From there it moved through the city, eventually to City Hall Park, where good, clean water shot high into the air and down into the City Hall fountain, to the delight of the public. Imagine— enough water to waste in a fountain!

(At the time of the celebration, the High Bridge had not yet been completed, so Croton water crossed a temporary low bridge. The lofty span replaced the modest one a few years later.)

Below: New Yorkers gathering at City Hall in celebration at the completion of the Croton water system. For more information, check out our podcast on the construction of the Croton Aqueduct



But the celebrated new system struggled to keep up with the demands of the growing city. In 1872, as masses of new arrivals from far-off lands crammed into tenements, an attractive water tower was constructed near the High Bridge to help increase the water pressure into the city.

The High Bridge and tower in 1915

By this time the High Bridge itself had turned into an attraction, a festive promenade where young gentlemen and their parasol-clinging lady companions could stroll, taking in the striking views of the still-forested landscape that surrounded them, while millions of gallons of clean water coursed beneath their feet.


But New York, growing larger every day, would need more water. Much, much more. The introduction of indoor plumbing would require an entirely new and much larger Croton system to be built, which opened in 1890 and employed the massive Jerome Park Reservoir in the Bronx to satisfy the demand.

But alas, with a million flushes came the end of the High Bridge as an active part of the water system. Its function replaced by unromantic pipes buried underground, the bridge and water tower were retired from service by 1949, and soon these structures modeled after antiquity became historical relics themselves.

Below: The High Bridge, lost in a haze, photographed in 1920


In a surprising twist given the unforgiving tendencies of city planners of the day, it was probably the beauty of the bridge and the tower that kept them from being ripped down in a bit of “progress.” Motorists along the Major Deegan Expressway took moments from their traffic jams to reflect on the possible story behind these strange and magnificent artifacts, which grew more incongruous as the modern highway system developed around them.


Two years ago this month, the High Bridge was restored, not for the movement of water but for those visitors and their parasols (replaced by headphones, we imagine) to enjoy a one-of-a-kind perspective on their buzzing metropolis.

If you go — or rather, when you go, because you really must see it — reflect upon the water that once passed below you—it helped this city grow.


Mass Transit: Take the A/C or the 1 train to 168th Street, get out and walk east. OR the M101 bus takes you right up to Highbridge Park

On the Bronx side, you can take the 4 train to Mt Eden Ave but it’s a bit of a walk west. Instead take the Bx11 or Bx13 bus

From the NYC Parks website:

“If you are entering the High Bridge from the Manhattan side, please enter Highbridge Park at West 172nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue and walk east to the High Bridge Water Tower Terrace staircase down to the bridge level. If entering from the Bronx side, enter at University Avenue and 170th Street in Highbridge, Bronx.”

Some images from my trip there in November. It’s three times as beautiful now!

The above is an excerpt from our book The Bowery Boys Adventures In Old New York, now available at bookstores everywhere.

Who Murdered Helen Jewett? A horrible crime exposes New York’s darkest secret

PODCAST The story of a brutal murder in a New York brothel and the prime suspect’s controversial trial which captivated Americans in the 1830s.

In the spring of 1836, a young woman named Helen Jewett was brutally murdered with a hatchet in a townhouse brothel on Thomas Street, just a few blocks northwest from New York City Hall. [Click here to see the exact location.]

This was not a normal crime. Helen was a prostitute of great beauty and considerable intelligence, making her living in a rapidly transforming city. Among her client list were presentable gentlemen and rowdy young men alike — their kind fueling the rise of illicit pleasures throughout New York City in the 1830s.

This was the era of the sporting man. Young single men with a little change in their pocket hit the streets of New York after dark, looking for a good time. For some single young women struggling to survive, the sex industry — from the ‘high end’ brothels to the grimy upper tiers of the theater — allowed them to live comfortable, if secretive, lives. But it placed many in great danger.

The prime suspect for Helen’s murder was a young Connecticut man named Richard P. Robinson who worked at a respectable New York firm. His trial would captivate New Yorkers and even interest newspaper readers around the country. But would justice be served?

ALSO: Find out how this incident helped shape the nature of American journalism itself.

PLUS: Meet more than one person named Ogden!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Google MusicStitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #222: WHO KILLED HELEN JEWETT?


The Bowery Boys: New York City History podcast is brought to you …. by you!

We are now producing a new Bowery Boys podcast every two weeks.  We’re also looking to improve the show in other ways and expand in other ways as well — through publishing, social media, live events and other forms of media.  But we can only do this with your help!

We are now a member of Patreon, a patronage platform where you can support your favorite content creators for as little as a $1 a month.

Please visit our page on Patreon and watch a short video of us recording the show and talking about our expansion plans.  If you’d like to help out, there are five different pledge levels (and with clever names too — Mannahatta, New Amsterdam, Five Points, Gilded Age, Jazz Age and Empire State). Check them out and consider being a sponsor.

We greatly appreciate our listeners and readers and thank you for joining us on this journey so far. And the best is yet to come!


New York City in 1830 — at Broadway and Bowling Green. The area just northeast of here would be ravaged by the Great Fire of 1835.


New York City Hall has it looked in 1830. The events of this story take place just a couple blocks to the north west of here!


The beautiful Helen Jewett (or Ellen Jewett), “from an original painting taken from life.”

From an original Painting taken from Life. Published May 1836, by H. R. Robinson, 48 Courtlandt St. N.


The prime suspect Richard Robinson, in his wig:

Taken from life as he appeared in the Court of Oyer and Terminer, on his arraignment, Tuesday, the 25th day of May, 1836. Entered according to Act of Congress in the Year 1836, by H.R. Robinson, in the Clerk’s Office of the District Court of the United States of the Southern District of N.Y


Much of the extant imagery produced following the trial was obviously highly critical of Robinson, mocking him as ‘an innocent boy’, a phrase which was used during the trial.

Courtesy MCNY; Alfred M. Hoffy (1790-1860)
John T. Bowen (ca. 1801-1856? )
Designed & drawn on Stone by Hoffy. Entered according to Act of Congress in the year 1836 by J. T. Bowen & A. Hoffy, in the Office of the Clerk of the District Court of the U.S. for the Southern District of New – York




One of the oldest existing buildings in the Tribeca/upper WTC district is St. Peter’s Church — seen here in a 1916 photograph — which began construction (to replace an older building) in 1836, the year of Helen Jewett’s murder. It sits in the region of the old prostitution district known as ‘the Holy Ground’.



Some images from the Life of Helen Jewett, one of several pamphlets which came out after the trial, dramatizing the lives of Jewett and Robinson. Most of the tale was fabricated for dramatic purposes.



At The Ready: The History of the New York City Fire Department

The distinguished members of New York’s various volunteer fire brigades, posing for the photographer Matthew Brady in 1858

PODCAST  The New York City Fire Department (or FDNY) protects the five boroughs from a host of disasters and mishaps — five-alarm blazes, a kitchen fire run amok, rescue operations and even those dastardly midtown elevators, always getting stuck!  But today’s tightly organized team is a far cry from the chaos and machismo that defined New York’s fire apparatus many decades ago.

New York’s early firefighters — Peter Stuyvesant‘s original ratel-watch — were all-purpose guardians, from police work to town timepieces.  Volunteer forces assembled in the 18th century just as innovative new engines arrived from London.

By the 19th century, the fire department was the ultimate boys club, with gangs of rival firefighters, with their own volunteer ‘runners’, raced to fires as though in a sports competition.  Fisticuffs regularly erupted.  From this tradition came Boss Tweed, whose corrupt political ways would forever change New York’s fire services — for better and for worse.

Volunteers were replaced by an official paid division by 1865.  Now using horse power and new technologies, the department fought against the extraordinary challenges of skyscraper and factory fires.  There were internal battles as well as the department struggled to become more inclusive within its ranks.

But the greatest test lay in the modern era — from a deteriorating infrastructure in the 1970s that left many areas of New York unguarded, and then, the new menace of modern terrorism that continues to test the skill of the FDNY.  From burning chimneys in New Amsterdam to the tragedy of 9/11, this is the story of how they earned the nickname New York’s Bravest.

Above:  That’s Harry Howard, one of the FDNY’s greatest firemen and a former member of the Bowery Boys volunteer fire unit!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #161 Fire Department of New York (FDNY)


And we would like to again thank our sponsor Squarespace!

Squarespace, the all-in-one platform that makes it fast and easy to create your own professional website or online portfolio. For a free trial and 10% off (your first purchase), go to squarespace.com and use offer code BOWERY.


A poster by Vera Bock from 1936, created for a series by the Federal Art Project, touts the contributions of Peter Stuyvesant to the history of New York firefighting. (LOC)

One of two fire engines first received by New York in 1733 (from an 1872 illustration) Courtesy NYPL

A firefighters’ procession at night, marching past Niblo’s Garden. 1858   Courtesy NYPL

Eagle insignia from a New York fire truck, 19th century, courtesy the US National Archives

The first official fire boat of the FDNY (although others had been rented before this), named for former mayor William F. Havemeyer.

Volunteer fire divisions were slowly fazed out after the introduction of an official paid company.  This was expanded when the five boroughs were created in 1898.  This postcard commemorates the final run of a volunteer fire department in West Brighton, Staten Island. (NYPL)

Firefighters battled a tenement blaze in this illustration from 1899, one of thousands that occurred in the poorer districts of town.  Improved fire regulations would ensure newer buildings were more fire proof. (Courtesy NYPL)

One of New York’s more interesting firehouses — the one for fireboats at the Battery. Photo by Berenice Abbott (courtesy NYPL)

Horses were a hotly contested inclusion to the fire departments during the 19th century.  They were eventually banished during the volunteer years, but re-introduced after 1870 and soon became essential for getting quickly to fires.

Hook and Ladder Co. No. 8, from 1887

Motorized fire engines and trucks replaced the horse-drawn varieties in the 1910s.  Here’s one model that was used by the FDNY in 1913 (Courtesy Shorpy)

The city’s growth created new challenges for the FDNY.  With the new subway, there was the potential for dangerous fires underground.  Here a team of firefighters battle a subway fire in midtown in 1915, and a couple firemen who braved the inferno underfoot. (LOC)

The difficult blaze at the Equitable Building in 1912 produced a bizarre aftermath of icy ruins.

Firefighters rescuing people (and paintings!) from a fire at the Museum of Modern Art, 1958. (Courtesy Life)

A sorrowful day:  Thousands come out to mourn the 12 firefighters who died fighting a terrible blaze that erupted across from the Flatiron Building on October 21, 1966. (Picture courtesy FDNY)

Total mayhem erupted in New York City in the 1970s, as whole districts like the South Bronx, Bushwick, Harlem and the Lower East Side saw a massive increase of fire-related disasters due to the city’s financial woes. (Photo courtesy New York Post/Vernon Shibla photographer)

Three hundred and forty-three firefighters and FDNY paramedics died in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.  But the force, along with the police and other emergency workers, managed to save tens of thousands of people on that day, making one of the largest rescue operations in American history.  In total, 2,977 people were killed that day, 2,606 of them in New York, on the ground and in the towers.

And finally, a rather amazing film documenting the fire department’s emergency response process in 1926, with a breathless dash-cam vantage point!

“Not since the Great Blizzard!” “Bigger than 1821!” Hurricane Sandy inspires historical superlatives

When things get really, really bad, history provides validation and context.   The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy has already inspired newscasters, meteorologists and journalists to reach to the greatest disasters in New York City history for comparison.

These can seem very hyperbolic at times and even a little weird. (‘7 Devastating Hurricanes: Where Will Sandy Rank?‘ as though she were an American Idol contestant.)  It will be days before we really know if this was truly “the greatest disaster in New York history.”  But I do think the comparisons can not only bring home the severity of the current situation, they can also bring to life past traumas in a way that no faded black-and-white image ever could.

Here’s a few historical comparisons I’ve heard thus far, and I’m adding a couple of my own, events that popped into mind as I watched some of the terrifying images on television:

Worst Subway Shutdown Ever — The subways often flood after rainstorms, but snowstorms have also been a menace, particularly the blizzard of 1947 and one in 2006.  However, after Sandy, the MTA declared “The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night.”  Last year’s Hurricane Irene was the first time the subway was ever preemptively shut down.  The decision this year proved wise indeed. [source]
Great Norfolk and Long Island Hurricane of 1821 — The Battery experienced high water levels of 11.2 feet during this 1821 event, still the only hurricane to ever directly hit New York. Last night, water levels surged to 13.88 feet, setting a new, disturbing record. Also known as the Great September Gale.

The Great New York Fire of 1835 — The images of runaway fires in Queens, mixed with the utter devastation of lower Manhattan, might remind you of the December blaze of 1835 which destroyed hundreds of buildings downtown. However, that exploding transformer on 14th Street — which caused a blackout to thousands of residents last night — also recall a series of explosions which occurred in New York in 1845, affectionately called the Great Explosion of 1845.  (Boy, they can really overuse a word like ‘great’.)

The Great Blizzard of 1888 — Sandy forced the shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange for a second day today, although the storm did not flood it, as rumors Monday night proclaimed. This was the first time the exchange has shut down for more than one day since the pulverizing snowstorm of 1888 paralyzed city transportation.

The Rockaway Fire of 1892 — One of the hardest hit areas in New York was Rockaway Beach, with its boardwalk destroyed and dozens of homes destroyed by fire over in Breezy Point.  The frightening images reminded me of something from our Rockaways podcast from this summer, a great fire which broke out in September of 1892 which destroyed most of the neighborhood of Seaside.

The Big Wind of 1912 — If contemporary sources are to be believed, the frozen windstorm which struck New York on February 22, 1912, blew at speeds more than double those of Sandy. The ‘giant among gales’ even stirred up a huge blaze in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and tested the steel of recently built skyscrapers.

The Long Island Express (New England Hurricane of 1938) — This powerful hurricane slammed into New England and Long Island in September of 1938.  It remains the most powerful storm to ever ravage the New England states.  According to Jeff Masters of Weather Underground, Sandy’s barometric pressure ties that of the Long Island storm, at 946 millibars.

The Ash Wednesday Hurricane of 1962 — Due to the ‘Frankenstorm‘ aspect to Sandy, another metric experts have used is the similarly formed, long-lingering March 1962 storm which hammered North Carolina, New Jersey and Long Island.

Hurricane Andrew 1992 —  Comparisons to this catastrophe are still out, as it’s mostly evoked due to the federal government’s poor disaster response. Another question left lingering is whether the cost of Sandy will rival that of Andrew, the third most expensive hurricane in American history (after Katrina and Ike).

September 11, 2001 — Then, of course, due to the shutdown of lower Manhattan, one can’t help but recall the attack on the World Trade Center, which actually was the worst thing to ever happen to New York City.

Crane Collapse at 303 East 51st Street 2008 — Anybody seeing the images of the broken crane which hung precariously at the construction site of One57 on West 57th Street might have remembered the horror which occurred at another midtown Manhattan site just four years ago, a crane collapse on East 51st Street which killed seven people. To this day, the uncompleted building stands as a reminder to this tragedy.

If you’ve heard any other historical comparisons used on your local newscast, please put them in the comments.

Mayor Cornelius Lawrence, son of Bayside

Above: New York by 1837 (in an painting by Edward Williams Clay) — a city surviving financial ups and downs, fires and water shortage, riots, cholera and the mayoralty of Cornelius W. Lawrence

KNOW YOUR MAYORS Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Mayor Cornelius Lawrence

In office: 1834-1837

We’re going back to the era of the great fire one more time to take a look at the man in charge of the city during that time — Cornelius W. Lawrence, the first elected mayor of New York.

I couldn’t find any portraits of Cornelius, but I found something better: the following description from a mid-19th century journal: “…old Cornelius had the ice cream and strawberries of everything in life — in commerce, in politics, in wives, in finances and in religion….He had a peculiar way of carrying his spectacles in his hand, behind his back while he looked at all the pretty girls he met.”

But getting to that ‘ice cream and strawberries’ required surviving one of the most tumultuous city elections — and the subsequent years of trauma — that a New York mayor has ever had to endure.

Lawrence was born in 1791 in bucolic Bay Side(in the future Queens), a farm boy with big city intentions at an early age. He became entranced with the lucrative merchant culture of New York, working his way into his own dry-goods auction house, the firm of Hicks, Lawrence & Co. with the wealthy Quaker financier Willet Hicks and Lawrence’s brother Richard. Their auction house was at Pearl and Fulton streets (just off Schermerhorn Row near the South Street Seaport today).

Lawrence, a high-profile merchant by 1832, was also a politically ambitious Democrat and served two years as a state congressmen before turning to local politics at a uniquely opportune moment.

Before 1834, the position of mayor had been appointed by the Common Council of the city, an unelected job that was shaped more by the political favoritism of governors and city alderman (who were elected) than by any particular leadership characteristic. This was finally amended by New York state in 1834, allowing for the mayor’s job to be popularly elected. And, not surprisingly, that first election was an absolute, chaotic mess.

The long-established Democrats and a surging Whig party wanted to get their hands on this now attainable position. As a result, that election day, spring 1834, came with voter intimidation, massive fraud, and angry riots which overtook the polls, particularly in the volitile Sixth Ward. The Democrats had put up Lawrence to challenge the wonderfully named Gulian Crommelin Verplanck, a colorful poet and former Democrat. When the dust settled, the Whigs were victorious in a majority of alderman posts, but the Democrat came out on top as mayor — by a mere 180 votes!

Below: New York in 1836, as per “Hooker’s new pocket plan of the city” (Click into it for a closer view)

Lawrence would be elected for three stressful one-year terms (spring 1834-spring 1837). At the very top of his to-do list was New York’s water supply. The new mayor had inherited a city quickly bursting with new residents and a paltry water supply so rancid and inadequete that one source blames it for the increase in public drunkenness. (Hey people have to drink something, right?)

Exacerbating the matter was the fear of disease. In 1832, his first year as congressman, New York was struck with a devastating cholera epidemic, killing hundreds; a lesser but no less dangerous sequel struck in 1834, just as Lawrence was getting comfortable at City Hall. And of course, the spectre of fire lurked, not just jeopardizing a highly flammable city, but Lawrence’s own fortunes: he controlled shares several fire insurance companies.

Plans for what would become the Croton aqueduct were well underwway when the Great Fire of 1835 devastated New York, destroyed the Merchant’s Exchange and potentially spelled doom for the city’s future. Lawrence himself lost thousands of dollars in shares, although his own auction house on Pearl Street had been spared.

The mayor and his entourage stormed down to Washington begging for aid for his beleagured city, to no avail. Fortunately, former mayor Philip Hone succeeded in persuading the state government to dole out millions in relief. Meanwhile, voters finally approved the construction of the aqueduct in 1836. Within the year New York experienced a burst of rapid reconstruction; the price of New York real estate post-fire soared to outlandish prices.

But fire and water weren’t Lawrence’s only distresses. Sometimes he had to fear his own constituents.

BELOW: Anti-abolitionist riots kept the city on edge during the 1830s

Pro-slavery sentiment among some New Yorkers culminated in a series of deadly riots in the 1830s, one during Lawrence’s first months as mayor, leading to the destruction of property owned by abolitionists and prominent businessmen Lewis and Arthur Tappan. Lawrence denounced the mob (after posing a threat to his wealthy friends) and ordered the National Guard to disperse them. Later, Tappen penned this mea culpa to the mayor, ensuring his good intentions, particularly the assurance that the abolitionists “will never, in any way, countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force.”

Being a Democrat in the 1830s meant a marraige between the Jacksonian wealthy and a powerful Irish working-class, strange bed-fellows often culminating in disaster. At a New Years eve celebration at the mayor’s home in 1837, supporters stormed the doors, turning the home into a ‘Five Points tavern’ by one account. The police were summoned in an effort to clear away the mayor’s own supporters!

As if these catastrophic events hadn’t been enough, Lawrence was finally thrown out of the mayor’s seat due to the results of the greatest catastrophe of all — the Panic of 1837, a financial crisis that briefly shifted the city’s power from the Democrats to the Whigs. He was defeated by Aaron Clark, who would prove to be the only Whig mayor of the city.

Perhaps ready to move on anyway, Lawrence entered the world of banking in his later years, interuppted only by a four-year stint in a federal role under President James Polk as the Collector of Customs.

He lived his later years in the city in a home near Broadway and Worth Street, before finally retiring back to the family home in Flushing. He died in 1861 and you can conceivably still go visit him; he’s buried at the Lawrence family burying ground at 216th Street and 42nd Avenue in Bayside, Queens.

The Great Explosion of 1845: downtown in flames (again!)

The devastating results of the monstrous fire of 1835 helped change the course of Manhattan — hastening the residential migration up the island, rewriting the architectural nature of downtown and essentially erasing the past. There would never be another fire of such intensity and magnitude.

But New York didn’t suddenly become fire-proof. In fact, ten years later came another massive blaze, in almost exactly the same place, that threatened to halt downtown’s rebirth before it even began.

Some distinct circumstances set it apart from the prior, more destructive blaze. It occurred before the crack of dawn on Saturday, July 19, 1845, on the third floor of an “oil store” on New Street — only a couple blocks from where the Great Fire of 1835 had started.  Normal summertime temperatures, sunlight creeping onto the horizon, and an influx of people going about their early morning business likely might have ensured that the blaze would have been swiftly contained.

Unfortunately, a warehouse owned by the merchants Crocker & Warren, just a block away at 38 Broad Street, was filled with a new shipment of saltpetre, used for the manufacture of gunpowder. Fire wafted in through an opening in one of the store’s open iron shutters, and the result was a series of cannon-like bursts of smoke and fire, almost like a volcano, smashing into buildings across the street. It culminated in a terrible, final explosion, completely engulfing the block. The explosion was heard as far away as Sandy Hook, New Jersey.

An account from 1888 described it as:

“an immense body of flame… it instantly penetrated at least seven buildings, blew in the fronts of the opposite houses on Broad Street, wrenched shutters and doors from buildings at some distance from the immediate scene of the explosion, propelled bricks and other missiles through the air, threw down many individuals who had gone as far as Beaver Street, spread the fire far and wide, so that the whole neighborhood was at once in a blaze, and most unfortunately covered up the [fire company’s] hose…. After this the firemen could with difficulty obtain any control over the conflagration.”

This new blaze spread south, down as far as Bowling Green, in total destroying between 300 and 350 buildings, most of which had been partially damaged by the blaze ten years before. The financial cost to the city was great, although significantly less than that of the blaze of 1835, somewhere between $6 and $10 million.

BELOW: in this lithograph, the serene fountain in Bowling Green as flames consume buildings all around it

A guide book from 1877 assesses the damage at $7 million, but interestingly attributes the rebuilding of the affected blocks to a “constant influx of gold from the seeming exhaustless resources of the El Dorado and the Pacific.”

This fire might have grown to swallow up all of downtown had the Croton Reservoir not been completed a few years before, providing a steady stream of water to put out the flames.

However, perhaps due to the awful and sudden explosion, the fire of 1845 bests that of the 1835 inferno in one unfortunate statistic: the number of fatalities.  Where only two people had died in the larger fire, at least 30 people died that July morning, including a few volunteer firefighters like lawyer Augustus L Cowdrey, whose body was never found.

It’s through Cowdrey’s memory that you can actually find a reminder of the 1845 fire in downtown Manhattan.  In the graveyard at Trinity Church on Broadway and Wall Street sits a tall obelisk, a fireman’s memorial engraved with the names of many fallen fighters of the 19th century, including that of Cowdrey.

PODCAST: The Great Fire of 1835

The Great Fire of 1835 devastated the city during one freezing December evening, destroying hundreds of buildings and changing the face of Manhattan forever. It underscored the city’s need for a functioning water system and permanent fire department. So why were there so many people drinking champagne in the street?

Listen in as we recount this breathtaking tale of the biggest fire in New York City history.

Listen to it for FREE on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or click this link to listen to the show or download it directly from our satellite site.

And now you can listen to it directly on SoundCloud:



Nicolino Calyo captured the terrible sight of the blaze as it might have looked from Red Hook, Brooklyn


Before the blaze: Charming Wall Street in 1825, from a 1920s guide book. Prosperity from the Erie Canal was just around the bend. (Courtesy Ephemeral New York)

The original Merchant’s Exchange building, one of New York’s more ornate building, featuring a statue of Alexander Hamilton standing nobly in its rotunda. (Illustration courtesy the New York Public Library image gallery)

What’s the damage?: the red areas below indicate the blocks destroyed by the swift moving conflagration (map courtesy CUNY)

City officials, including mayor Cornelius Lawrence, could only watch and stare as the blaze over takes a stretch of prominent buildings. Also included below is Charles King, who watches as his newspaper the New York American is overcome by the fire.

Calyo’s painted depiction of the “Burning of the Merchant’s Exchange”

Another interpretation from the same angle — the futility of battling the blaze was chillingly illustrated from the corner Wall and William streets, where winds carried the flames from building to building, high above the heads of fighters below.

As the old Dutch Church on Garden Street caught fire, a morose parishioner mounted the organ and began playing a dirge. (Where’s Garden Street? According to Forgotten New York, Garden Street was “between William Street and Broadway, just south of Wall Street” and is now part of Exchange Place today.)

Aftermath at the Merchant’s Exchange. Many business owners actually tranferred their stock to the Exchange building, unfortunately thinking it would be impervious to the encroaching flames.

The devastation that met New Yorkers the following day led most to believe the city would never recover.

Most of the buildings on today’s Stone Street were built in the immediate years following the fire, Greek Revival-style countinghouses that are refitted for modern times as taverns and restaurants. It’s also one of the few cobblestone streets still around in the Financial District area.

Who exactly was Nicolino Calyo, the man who painted so many vivid pictures of the Great Fire? Nicolino Vicomte de Calyo was a political dissenter who fled Italy in the 1830s and settled in Baltimore, becoming entranced by the new American landscape. Although his most famous depictions of New York are of the city in flame, he also painted a few serene views (like the one below, a vantage of the harbor from Brooklyn Heights).

His works are in many New York museums, including the “Burning of the Merchant’s Exchange” which is at the Museum of the City of New York.

Another cool resource on the Great Fire is up at the CUNY website, with more pictures and more backstory as to New York’s capacity to fight blazes in the early 19th century.

And if you’re so inclined, why not visit the New York City Fire Museum? It’s in SoHo and afterwards you can take a stroll down to the Financial District and imagine what it all might have looked like.

Know Your Mayors: Philip Hone, the party mayor

Our modest little series about some of the greatest, notorious, most important, even most useless, mayors of New York City. Other entrants in our mayoral survey can be found here.

Many of our city’s early mayors are marginal figures obscured by a lack of personal information in publications of the day. We only know a few by their actions and can only indirectly discern their personalities from their popularity and effectiveness.

Not so with Philip Hone, the Whig mayor of New York City for a single solitary term (1826-27). Thanks to his fascinating and well written diary, we not only know all about him, we have an uncommonly vivid window into the workings of the early city.

Hone was born in 1780 on Dutch Street (between John and Fulton streets) and made his name on the nearby ports as an teenage auctioneer selling goods right off the boat. His auction business became known throughout the ports of the new America, and by age 40, the self-made Hone had amassed such wealth that he effectively retired to the life of a “gentleman”.

From his lavish home on 235 Broadway across from City Hall, Hone dined with politicians and celebrities, a good-natured and cultured bon vivant, an old school Knickerbocker who would consider himself good friends with the likes of Daniel Webster, Washington Irving, and John Jacob Astor (whose Astor House would sprout up next door). His parlor hosted a nightly gallery of political and foreign dignitaries mixing it up with New York’s social strata.

Naturally, political ambitions also came knocking, and Hone was elected an alderman in 1824 before winning the mayoralty in 1826, a rare representative of the Whig party in a city ever so dominated by Democrats.

It seems that Hone’s strengths as mayor came as a direct extension of his role as New York’s social network king. He’s as known as much for his parties as for his policies. The introduction to his diaries doesn’t even bother to disguise this: “Mr. Hone represented the city socially as well as politically. He entertained officially; and visiting strangers during his term enjoyed a hospitality which reflected credit upon the whole community.”

Translation: the hottest club in 1826 was City hall.

Constantly distracted, he amassed membership in a variety of clubs and associations, became a trustee in New York’s first insane asylum, and dabbled early in canal building as president of the Delaware and Hudson Canal company (later to become the basis of the D&H Railroad).

Perhaps as a result, his tenure as mayor is marked by little of actual substance. His somewhat elitist views and political outsiderness left him stranded in a city where ‘Whiggery’ often equated only to upper classes. His anti-Irish, anti-Democratic views were fighting against the wind. Later, by the 1830s, the power struggles between Whigs and Democrats would virtually wipe Hone’s party from the city’s political map.

Mostly, he’s remembered as a cultural ambassador, even commissioning artwork for City Hall, approving of a developing theater district in the not-yet-seedy Bowery and encouraging the city’s growth as an American capitol of arts and sciences.

Perhaps though it’s best that he left office anyway. Moving to the “south-east corner of Broadway and Great Jones street” above Houston Street, where he would remain until his death in 1851, Hone would document in a remarkable diary the everyday, upper-class life of New York, from political shifts to the latest opera. Hone’s “graphic pen”, as described in a New York Times review in 1896, would become one of the great chronicles of early New York history. Most notable is his description of the terrible Great Fire of 1835, a tragedy which momentarily gutted the high society he had fostered for years.

The diary is indispensible for New York historians. I’m not sure if it’s in print, but you can look at pages of it for free here.