Filth, Fever, Water, Fire

The 1830s boom improved living conditions for many working people, notably the two-fifths of the city’s artisans who worked in the building trades, erecting the thousand-plus structures going up each year. The street contractors, stonecutters, and yard owners who paved, curbed, and guttered the city’s roadways, as well as many of the cartmen who hauled commodities over them, could aspire to the comfortable housing going up above Houston and below 14th Street. Some entrepreneurial contractors, especially those who invested in land, rocketed to the ranks of the wealthy.

But the majority of the working class saw their living standards deteriorate, partly because of boom-fostered inflation—especially the rapidly rising rents exacted by those the City Inspector (in 1835) called “mercenary landlords”—but primarily because constructing housing for poor people wasn’t profitable. Some speculative developers did erect three-story brick structures, partition each floor into four rooms, and rent out each of six two-room “apartments” to one or more families. In 1833 industrialist James Allaire raised Manhattan’s first “tenement” house on Water Street near his foundry: a four-story, sixty-foot-deep, barracks-style building for his workforce.

On the whole, however, speculative builders—especially those operating on thin credit margins—had little incentive to house the poor. Nor did established landlords have reason to replace their rundown, two-story, brick-fronted wooden houses with better structures. Given the tremendous housing shortage and most workers’ continued need to live within walking distance of their jobsites, landlords harvested tremendous rents just by packing people into preexisting buildings. Indeed, the more they reduced maintenance and let their properties deteriorate, the more the city reduced their tax assessments, thus boosting their profits.

As ever more people crammed into ever more dilapidated quarters, the consequences of crowding became blatantly apparent—to both eye and nose. New York, it was widely agreed, was the filthiest urban center in the United States; Boston and Philadelphia gleamed by comparison. This dubious distinction, ultimately rooted in the perverse dynamics of the housing market’s response to immigration, was exacerbated by the city government’s hands-off approach to the increasing production of garbage.

Since the turn of the century the Common Council had had ample authority from the state to oversee sanitary conditions, but the aldermen had made infrequent or incompetent use of their power. Municipal collecting remained lackadaisical at best. Great heaps of mud, garbage, and animal excrement piled up in the streets, forming a stinking mash labeled “Corporation Pudding” by a disgusted citizenry. To this base were added the noxious by-products of slaughterhouses, tanneries, dyers, distilleries, glue works, bone boilers, and stables, which had once been banished to the periphery but had now been overtaken by rapid expansion and were back in town. Roving herds of scavenging pigs made some inroads on the resulting accumulation, but what goes in must come out, and the porkers added their own contributions to the vile stew.

So did humans, albeit more indirectly. Excrement was still stored in privy-vaults—temporary holding bins placed beneath backyard outhouses. An 1823 city ordinance had required they be made of stone, be sunk at least five feet deep, and pass city inspection. In practice, brick or wood remained common, many were shallowly positioned, and exemptions were liberally granted. But no matter how well or ill they were made, the city’s privies were not prepared for the torrent of shit that now descended on them, courtesy of a proliferating population. One (admittedly notorious) building between Christopher and Grove housed forty-one families, all of whom shared one indescribably disgusting privy, but the routine state of affairs was bad enough. When porous vaults were situated higher than adjoining basements, their contents oozed downward into the living quarters of invariably poorer neighbors. And when backed-up privies overflowed, which was often, or when storms produced local flooding, human effluvia was swept into the streets, where it mingled with the rest of the awful offal.

Privies were emptied periodically by “necessary tubmen”—one of the few jobs reserved exclusively for blacks. Hired by the city, they were mandated to carry their loads in closed carts, in dead of night or early morn, though this hardly mitigated their impact. In stifling summer months New Yorkers slept with their windows open, and the stench from passing “night carts” was powerful enough to wake the most somnolent. Also, to brace themselves for their revolting labors, some tubmen fortified themselves with strong liquor, and their consequently raucous behavior generated additional complaints, particularly in working-class neighborhoods.

Their routes run, the tubmen either laid their burdens down in landfill areas, dumped them directly into the rivers (where they quickly coated the docks with slime), or delivered them to fertilizer dealers who mixed them with sawdust and spent charcoal, producing a light manure they sold to farmers. The one thing tubmen were not allowed to do with human waste was put it in the sewers.

Sewers were for water, not garbage of any description, and had been since drains were first built in Manhattan in 1676. The first sewers had been open trenches for carrying off storm water from low-lying areas and preventing hazardous accumulations. By 1800 such trenches were common; made of stone, brick, cement, or planks, they ran down the center or along the sides of streets. They were built wide enough to permit access for cleaning, but the breadth made them slow running, stagnant, and foul; to avoid decomposition by the sun, some were dug six feet deep, or below low-water mark. The covered-over sewer under Canal Street, in the absence of air traps, continued to reek on warm days, and the resulting decline in property values was long remembered.

In 1819 the Common Council had explicitly prohibited the use of sewers to carry off fecal matter. It further required installation of grates at the junction of common sewers with household drains, which allowed flood water in and kept solid wastes out. Dr. Hosack argued against this, proposing instead adoption of water closets connected to sewers that would then convey “every species of filth” to the rivers. He admitted, however, that the requisite flushing process would depend on New York’s obtaining a far more abundant source of water than currently available.

The city’s water was not only scarce, but brackish, and it was fast becoming deadly. In 1829 researchers from the Lyceum of Natural History estimated that in every twenty-four hours New Yorkers deposited over one hundred tons of excrement into the alluvium, from whence, accompanied by other soluble waste, it percolated down to the water table. In the 1830s, due to the increase in privies and to seepage from old graveyards, downtown wells were bringing up a tainted brew.

With pure water now a scarce commodity, it became allocated according to marketplace rules, by ability to pay. The poor continued to use city wells, including the ancient “tea water pump.” Artisans bought water, at a penny a gallon, from enterprising carters who carried hogsheads of “pure” country springwater around the city; it too was often polluted. Even the well-to-do had problems, if they relied on Aaron Burr’s old gambit, the Manhattan Company. The firm expanded its skimpy service at a sludge-like pace, just enough to keep its banking privileges from being revoked. As the city moved north, the Manhattan’s waterworks grew more remote from more people (the company didn’t operate above Grand Street). By the end of the War of 1812, its scant twenty-three miles of wooden pipes delivered perfunctory service to its select (and increasingly furious) clientele. Municipal authorities, albeit reluctant to take on one of the city’s leading bondholders, came around slowly to the notion that water was a public good, which should be publicly produced.

In 1821 Mayor Allen again proposed diverting the Bronx River into a municipal reservoir. In 1825 the state chartered a private company to bring water down from Westchester, but nothing much was done until 1829, when the city built its own reservoir. A huge cast-iron tank—forty-three feet in diameter, twenty feet high, with a capacity of 305,422 gallons—was set atop an octagonal stone tower twenty-seven feet high, at the corner of the Bowery and 13th Street. Water was carried from here south to the city by iron pipes, one running down Broadway to Canal, the other down the Bowery to Catherine.

Farther than this the city would not go. For the affluent and powerful, the absence of abundant fresh water remained an annoyance, not a crisis. But in the slums, the consequences of pollution, squalor, and crowding were about to become lethal.


In 1832 the cholera roared into town. New Yorkers had seen it coming. They had read in their papers of its devastating march across Asia and the trade routes to Europe, reaching Poland, then France, then England. City authorities knew the plague might well ride the sea lanes to the Hudson, but did next to nothing with this foreknowledge.

New York’s old Board of Health certainly had authority to act. Yet it had been lulled into quiescence in the ten years since the yellow fever epidemic of 1822. Its approach to disease prevention, moreover, now concentrated almost exclusively on quarantining ships from dangerous southern waters. Even there, it was under constant pressure not to render too hasty a diagnosis that would cut off the flow of trade and profit. The board, one critic noted caustically, was “more afraid of the merchants than of lying.”

As spring turned to summer, the corporation’s inactivity spurred men of medicine to demand action. The Medical Society, which represented two-thirds of the city’s licensed physicians, urged immediate cleaning of streets, yards, and vacant lots, disinfection of privies and cesspools with quicklime, and establishment of a network of emergency hospitals. The city administration responded with an apathy partly rooted in the conviction—widely shared, but advanced most ardently by evangelical clergymen—that the plague, should it come, would pass over the virtuous parts of town and descend, like God’s wrath, on its sin-infested quarters. Ministers told the pious that the path of righteousness was the road to health. Temperance activists plastered Manhattan’s walls with notices like QUIT DRAM DRINKING IF YOU WOULD NOT HAVE THE CHOLERA.(There was nothing like the possibility of suffering and death for bringing sinners to their knees, wrote Lewis Tappan, with something approaching glee.)

Physicians’ belief in “predisposing causes” also suggested the likeliest victims would be those who, through indulgence in vice, intemperance, and filthy living habits, had weakened and predisposed themselves to the disease. Science and religion thus sailed on parallel courses, with their essential interconnections drawn out most clearly by Sylvester Graham, who lectured that liquor, impure foods, and sexual dissipation undermined the body’s ability to resist the cholera. Bon vivants ridiculed the Grahamites and advised citizens to fortify themselves with a hearty diet of meat, spices, and brandy.

On June 15 the Albany steamboat brought word that the cholera had forded the Atlantic, wreaking havoc in Quebec and Montreal. By June 18 it was reported at Ogdensburg. Mayor Walter Bowne proclaimed a severe quarantine. No ship was to approach closer than three hundred yards to the city, no land-based vehicle to come within a mile and a half. The Courier and Enquirer printed a cholera extra of ten thousand copies. Apothecaries posted handbills advertising opium, camphor, and laudanum. On June 20 a large group of clergy and prominent laymen met at the American Bible Society and called for a day of fasting and prayer. They were seconded by the Common Council, but workingmen’s advocate and freethinking editor George Henry Evans urged his readers to ignore the recommendation as an “insidious and dangerous encroachment” on the separation of church and state.

Late Monday night, June 26, an Irish immigrant named Fitzgerald came home violently ill; he recovered, only to have two of his children die after being struck by the identical agonizing stomach cramps. The city fathers pressured the Board of Health into declaring them the victims of nothing worse than diarrhea, a common summer complaint. But many physicians had seen and diagnosed Asiatic cholera, and beneath the blanket of official silence, word spread fast.

Methodists began prayer meetings each morning. June 29, the day of fasting and humiliation, was observed in scores of churches. The Medical Society, fed up with the dilatory Board of Health, stated publicly on July 2 that cholera had struck nine people and that only one had survived. John Pintard attacked this “impertinent interference” with the constituted authorities and asked if the doctors knew the disaster their announcement would wreak on the city’s business.

On July 3 Leggett reported in the Evening Post that a great exodus had begun. For all the certainty about their moral and physiological invulnerability, the city’s comfortable classes weren’t about to stake their lives on it. The roads, Leggett noted, were lined with “well-filled stage coaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic struck, fleeing from the city, as we may suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii or Reggio fled from those devoted places, when the red lava showered down upon their houses.” Oceans of pedestrians trudged outward with packs on backs. Steamboats bore refugees up the Hudson, among them Sam Ruggles and his family—he would correspond with his Gramercy Park contractor from Newburgh—generating substantial profits for Commodore Vanderbilt. Every farmhouse and country home within a thirty-mile radius was soon filled with lodgers. By the end of the first week in July, almost all who could afford to flee had fled; by the Post’s estimate of August 6, that figure eventually reached 100,000, roughly half the population.

Of the other half, 3,513 died, most of them horribly, the lucky ones swiftly. The young editor Henry Dana Ward wrote his parents that some “are taken like lightning from the midst of their families and daily work.” One paper reported smugly that a prostitute who had been adorning herself before her glass at one was in a hearse by half past three.

Cartloads of coffins rumbled through the streets but couldn’t keep up with demand. One day Finney noticed five hearses drawn up at five different houses, all at the same time, all within sight of his door. In other neighborhoods, dead bodies lay unburied in the gutters. At the potters’ field, putrefying corpses lay in shallow pits, the prey of rats.

As the city reeled, some sought to calm hysteria among the better-off still in town or camped nearby, by noting that, as predicted, the plague was mainly scything the poor. John Pintard, observing that the plague was “almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations,” drew the terrible conclusion that the sooner this “scum of the city” was dispatched, the sooner the fever, deprived of fodder, would pass. Most New Yorkers who stayed in town, however, sprang into action in an effort to succor or rescue plague victims, sinners or no. The Board of Health assumed governmental functions. Streets, lots, cellars, and docks were cleaned of a decade’s accumulation of filth and strewn with lime. The clothes and bedding of the sick were taken out and burned, the fumes filling the air.

With thousands of wage-earners thrown out of work by the abrupt cessation of the city’s business, private citizens and churches established a Committee of the Benevolent. A July 16 meeting at the Merchants’ Exchange collected about seventeen hundred dollars for poor relief; thousands more dollars flowed from prominent merchants. The committee divided into fifteen subcommittees, one for each ward. These groups paid local residents for “cleansing and purifying their own dwellings,” established soup kitchens, and distributed food and clothing. This was hands-on charity. Gentlemen searched out “the abode of poverty, filth, and disease” and administered “personally to the wants of the wretched inmates” while “not omitting to warn the wicked of their evil ways, and point them to the Great Physician of the Soul.”


As reported in this daily tally of its victims, the cholera epidemic raged through the streets of the Five Points and other crowded downtown districts with particular severity. (© Museum of the City of New York)

For some, the poor swam into focus for the first time. At the height of the epidemic Mrs. P. Roosevelt noted that while ordinarily “no one notices the poor” who are “frequently are to be found lying in the streets,” now they were being “picked up and taken to the hospitals.” “Only on occasions such as this,” she reflected, “is the true extent of the misery of the City known.”

Despite earnest solicitations by the Board of Health, the trustees of the privately run New York Hospital (who included Philip Hone and James DePeyster) flatly refused to accept cholera patients. The brunt of the onslaught therefore fell on Bellevue, the public institution. By July 7 it had already admitted 555, of whom 334 would die by August 8. Soon the place was swamped with the quick and dead alike. Patients lay on the floors crying for water. There were often forty bodies at once in the deadhouse, as the morgue was known. Before it was over, Bellevue would admit two thousand people, over a sixth of all victims, and tally six hundred deaths.

To supplement its work, the Board of Health established five cholera hospitals around the city—in the Hall of Records, a school, an old bank, an abandoned workshed, and a workshop at Corlear’s Hook (the arrival of the latter precipitating a mass exodus of workers from adjoining shipyards). Most poor people forcibly blocked efforts to remove their sick to these hospitals, regarding them as charnel houses run by incompetents. Doctors and city officials who insisted were attacked and brutally beaten.

Following precedents from earlier battles against yellow fever, the authorities set out to disperse the deadly concentrations in the slums. A Committee to Provide Suitable Accommodations for the Destitute Poor evacuated tenants, over the protests of anguished landlords. It moved them to buildings and shanties around town (including one at 10th Street and Avenue C for “colored people in health”), which they leased from other landlords, often at extortionate rents. It then arranged with the commissioners of the almshouse to supply food, medicines, and clothing. The Court of General Sessions discharged all prisoners convicted of misdemeanors and removed felons from the penitentiary and Bridewell to temporary shelter at Blackwell’s Island.

Many churches closed down, especially the wealthier ones whose flocks had fled (St. George’s shut for almost a month), but many clergy and religious stayed and did heroic work. The Catholic Church won highest praise, with the Sisters of Charity and Father Várela singled out. (It was said that Varela “lived in the hospitals.”) The Episcopal Mission Society expanded its outdoor relief efforts. Evangelist Finney stayed at his post and caught the disease; he survived but was incapacitated for months.

By the third week in July, with the epidemic at its height, great swathes of the city were deathly silent, their streets deserted. Then it ended. Moving on almost as rapidly as it had blown in, the cholera continued its journey along the trade routes, through the Erie Canal towns of western New York, down the Ohio Canal to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, tracing the pathways of the market economy with a finger of death.

In August the number of new cases began a steady decline. By the second half of the month, refugees began to trickle back. On August 29 medical authorities pronounced the city safe. Pintard was thrilled at the commercial resurrection. All was “life & bustle,” he rejoiced, with stores all open, sidewalks lined with bales and boxes, streets crowded with carts, and “clerks busy in making out Bills.” Beneath his notice, hundreds of beggars, vast numbers of them newly orphaned children, plied the streets. Benevolent ladies started up a Brooklyn Orphan Asylum to deal with the youthful survivors.

Stocktaking in the aftermath generally followed the lines of prior opinion. The Rev. Gardiner Spring saw in the pestilence “the hand of God,” with His sanitary and salutary purpose apparently having been “to drain off the filth and scum which contaminate and defile human society.” Sabbatarians declared the disease “owing to vices which a proper regard to the Sabbath would check more effectually than anything else.” Others blamed drink and slovenliness, including the governor of New York, who opined that “an infinitely wise and just God has seen fit to employ pestilence as one means of scourging the human race for their sins, and it seems to be an appropriate one for the sins of uncleanliness and intemperance.”

The immigrant poor, who had fared worst, came in for the greatest opprobrium. The Board of Health reported that “the low Irish suffered the most, being exceedingly dirty in their habits, much addicted to intemperance and crowded together into the worst portions of the city.” They were poor—due, of course, to their own idleness and fondness for drink—and poverty was the “natural parent of disease.” Philip Hone brought a more succinctly brutal indictment: “They have brought the cholera this year, and they will always bring wretchedness and want.”

Radicals insisted cholera was the result not of divine intervention but of human injustice. “It may be heretical,” said George Henry Evans, “but we firmly believe that the cholera so far from being a scourge of the Almighty is a scourge which mankind have brought upon themselves by their own bad arrangements which produce poverty among many, while abundance is in existence for all.” Certainly there was a correlation between poverty and mortality. But poverty was not a moral failing, Evans wrote that August in the Workingman’s Advocate, it was “occasioned by unjust remuneration of labor.” He urged New Yorkers to impose a graduated income tax that would secure funds from the wealthy to make recurrence of the disease impossible. Other radicals called on the city to create a park at Corlear’s Hook for working people, akin to facilities it was helping develop at Washington, Gramercy, and Union Squares; this was vetoed as too costly and unlikely to generate significant new tax revenues.


On one thing, there was general agreement: New York City needed fresh, clean water. Even those who saw divine intervention at work didn’t contest physicians and sanitarians like William MacNeven and John Griscom who pointed to the polluted drinking supply and the poisonous vapors rising from the streets as major contributors to the plague.

In October 1832 the Common Council appropriated a thousand dollars for an inquiry into how to fetch water to New York. A December report concluded that the Croton River in upper Westchester County was the best source for an “inexhaustible” supply. In 1833, at the Common Council’s behest, the legislature authorized creation of the New York State Water Commission, headed by former mayor Stephen Allen, to supervise the city’s ongoing investigations. Surveyors declared the Croton feasible, but the cost of building an aqueduct was pegged at five million dollars, an alarming estimate that abruptly halted proceedings.

Opposition to the enormous expense might have postponed or even precluded the project, but for the existence of another proaqueduct lobby. This coalition of landowners, speculative developers, banks and insurance companies feared a different urban scourge—fire. Fire threatened to undermine the real estate boom of which they were primary beneficiaries. Fires had been decimating rich areas, not just poor ones, and with increasing frequency in the thirties. The year 1834 had been a terrible one for property owners in the dry-goods district, the worst to date, and fire insurance companies had been hit with claims approaching a million dollars. Afflicted businessmen joined the campaign for new municipal initiatives, arguing that public costs were justified by private savings.

New York’s fire prevention efforts to date had concentrated on extending the “fire limits,” the part of the city where special building codes regulated the material and design of private and commercial structures. In 1812 the fire limits covered Manhattan south of Chambers Street. In 1815 they were extended to a line crossing the island just above Washington Square. In 1833 they jumped north to Second Street, and the following year, to 14th Street.

The city also abandoned reliance on church sextons to sound the alarm in case of fire, shifting to purpose-built bell towers, with the number of clangs indicating in which of five fire districts a blaze had been reported. Because these wooden stanchions too often fell prey to flames themselves, in April 1835 officials placed a twenty-four hour sentinel in the cupola of City Hall to clang a large, newly installed fire bell and hang a light in the direction of any perceived blaze.

To enhance the water-for-fire supply the Common Council had built a stopgap network of some forty cisterns, usually beside a church, to catch rainwater (at times convicts were set to filling them). In the event of a conflagration, fire engines were dragged to the nearest cistern, or if it was dry (as was often the case, given low levels of rainfall), firemen would link their machines in a chain to the nearest river. Neither method, however, could generate enough pressure to reach the upper levels of newer, taller buildings. The 13th Street Reservoir, once connected to hydrants, proved capable of lofting water to the roofs of most three-story houses, even without engines. The number of hydrants grew rapidly, accompanied by street boxes containing coiled hemp hoses, and some predicted that eventually there would be a hydrant on every block, making engines obsolete. However, one big tank could not handle simultaneous blazes nor drive water to the tops of the four-to-five-story warehouses going up downtown.

Sam Ruggles was deeply concerned—doubly so because he, like many large property owners, including Mayor Cornelius Lawrence, held substantial shares in fire insurance companies. Insurance company directors, moreover, were heavily represented on the Common Council and on the New York State Water Commission, and together with the landed interests they formed a formidable lobby. Additional support came from the manufacturing and service sectors. Industrialists needed water. The New-York Gas-Light Company’s well was drying up. Chemical works, sugar houses, brewhouses, distilleries, tanners, dyers, and soap makers: all faced dwindling liquid resources. Many businesses also relied on steam engines—there were sixty of them around town in 1834—and taverns, hotels, livery stables, and cake shops were all increasingly parched.

The water lobby was spurred on by another outbreak of cholera in 1834, which drove the number of reported deaths up 50 percent over that of 1833, in sharp and sorry contrast to Philadelphia’s success in curtailing the disease, widely credited to a vigorous street-washing campaign. The Sun pronounced acquisition of an aqueduct to be a matter of “our city’s honor and our city’s pride.” The penny presses’ blanket rivals, including the New York Commercial Advertiser, joined them in calling for Croton water.

The conjoint pressure burst through remaining opposition, now chiefly from the Manhattan Company and from uptown property owners who feared weakened demand for their real estate if water came to the lower wards. In February 1835 the Common Council, citing both health and safety crises, finally wrested the water supply from Burr’s progeny. The aldermen authorized a reinvestigation of the Croton project and its submission to a popular referendum. In preparation for the April 1835 vote, Ruggles and his colleagues paid the cost of printing pro-Croton tickets and of hiring poll watchers. When the results were in, 17,330 backed the idea, 5,963 opposed it. Support was highest in the elite First Ward, resistance strongest in the poorer districts, where many believed they would be priced out of access. By July 1835 preconstruction surveys were underway.

New York had taken decisive steps toward revolutionizing its water supply. But action came too late to prevent or contain the greatest fire in the city’s entire history, one of the most destructive anywhere since London had been ravaged 169 years earlier.


On the frigid evening of December 16, 1835, high winds pummeled downtown Manhattan. The temperature kept plunging; before the night was over, it would bottom out at seventeen degrees below zero. Just before nine P.M., as Watchman Hayes passed the corner of Exchange and Pearl streets, he smelled smoke and summoned other watchmen. They quickly discovered the source in a five-story warehouse, (Subsequent investigation “incontrovertibly established” that stove coals had ignited gas escaping from a broken line.) Forcing open the door, they found the interior all aflame. They watched helplessly as the inferno blew through the roof and jumped across the narrow and crooked streets, whipped by the wind. Within fifteen minutes, fully fifty of the area’s tightly packed buildings were ablaze.

The watchmen spread the alarm. The new City Hall sentinel clanged his bell. The jail next door took up the pealing. Church belfries chimed in.

The firemen who now crawled out of their beds, exhausted from fighting two bad fires the night before, were members of a shorthanded and demoralized department. The cholera epidemics had taken a heavy toll on their ranks, which in any event had not kept pace with the growth of population. The city had more than doubled in size since 1823, but the number of volunteers in 1835 stood at fifteen hundred, up only 285 over the same period. Chief Engineer James Gulick, the six-foot-two idol of the department, had cut down on slugfests between companies for control of hydrants, but feuds still festered. Some of the firemen’s troubles were of their own making. The manly volunteers stubbornly insisted on dragging their hand-operated engines to the scene, rather than permitting horses to be used, and had no tolerance whatever for the new steam fire engines London had deployed since 1829.

Even had they been in peak condition, the firemen faced an impossible task. By midnight the freezing winds had lashed the fire to an awesome and unmanageable ferocity; many thought the last days of Pompeii the only fitting comparison. The sky was lit so brightly the glow could be seen in Poughkeepsie, New Haven, and Philadelphia, where firemen turned out thinking their suburbs were aflame. Help came from near and far. Brooklyn sent company after company by ferry. A locomotive was rushed from Jersey City to Newark and returned with a train of flatcars loaded with fire engines. One company came all the way from Philadelphia.

As the flames roared down to Water Street—jumping “like flashes of lightning,” Philip Hone recalled later—arriving volunteers discovered that all the wells, cisterns, and hydrants were frozen solid. Gulick sent a dozen engines to the East River. It was frozen too. Hook-and-ladder men took their axes, ran to the ends of the piers, chopped holes in the ice, dragged an engine over, rigged up a series of machines along Coenties Slip and up Water Street—only to discover that water froze in the hose. By jumping up and down on the lines to break the ice clots and pouring alcohol into the engine pumps, they worked up some feeble streams, only to have the wind hammer the water back in their faces. Some, reduced to “the apathy of despair,” stood about helplessly, pouring brandy into their boots to keep their feet from freezing. Others turned to salvage operations, dragging tons of silks, satins, laces, and shawls out of warehouses. One phalanx piled a thirty-foot-high mountain of goods in the center of Hanover Square, only to watch it vanish in flames that vaulted out from the warehouse of Peter Remsen and Company. Later, there were bitter complaints about the predatory behavior of cartmen who charged exorbitant rates for moving possessions away from flames and refused to serve any but the wealthy.


View of the Great Fire in New York, December 16 & 17, 1835, aquatint by Nicolino Calyo, 1836. All that remained of the Merchant’s Exchange was the burned-out shell on the left. (© Collection of The New-York Historical Society)

The fire headed north, seizing the marble and supposedly fireproof Merchants’ Exchange. Heroic rescuers saved the trading records charting the speculative movements underway at the New York Stock & Exchange Board. But efforts to salvage the statue of Alexander Hamilton failed, and the would-be recovery men just escaped being buried in the collapse of the great sixty-foot cupola.

Around four A.M. the Tontine Coffee House went up. Foreman Mills, of Eagle Engine No. 13, realized that if the flames crossed Wall Street the upper half of the city would go. Two buildings were blown up to block the fire’s passage by depriving it of fuel. The gambit worked and, with Mayor Lawrence’s permission, was deployed more vigorously. Lawrence dispatched Charles King, editor of the New York American, to the Navy Yard for officers and sailors to do the demolitions and for the necessary gunpowder, but these supplies proved inadequate. While Mayor Lawrence and Colonel Hamilton raced from grocery to grocery scraping together portions of powder, and others ransacked the arsenal tearing open cartridges, King and a boatload of marines fought their way through the ice-obstructed river to the Red Hook Point powder house and ferried back enough twenty-five pound kegs to prevent the inferno from crossing Coenties Slip.

By morning the fire, though balked, raged uncontrollably. Its domain—from Maiden Lane to Coenties Slip, from William Street to the East River—was a thirteen-acre ocean of burning waves. As if alive and determined to break out, it forayed out into the river, from which boats had been hastily removed: gallons of blazing turpentine cascaded down the shore and rolled across the ice, setting a few vessels on fire. The conflagration took another night and day to burn itself out. Even then, thick black clouds spewed into the winter sky. It would not be completely quenched for two weeks.

Troops were brought in the first night to control looting. Sentinels stood guard for days amid ruins littered with charred merchandise: scorched silks, laces, prints, a “mountain of coffee” at the corner of Old Slip and South Street. The night of the fire, over ninety people were seized in the act of carrying away property; the next day, two hundred more were arrested. Hone ranted to his diary about “the miserable wretches who prowled about the ruins, and became beastly drunk on the champagne and other wines and liquors with which the streets and wharves were lined.” Worse, they “seemed to exult in the misfortune, and such expressions were heard as ‘This will make the aristocracy haul in their horns!’”

In the aftermath, voracious demands for information spurred the new penny press to innovative heights. The Sun published a morning edition of twenty-three thousand and an “extra” of thirty thousand, for a record-shattering one-day circulation of fiftythree thousand. The Herald, in its December 21 issue, used illustrations for the first time: one two-column woodcut showed the remains of the Merchant’s Exchange; another mapped the area of destruction. Nathaniel Currier, a twenty-two-year-old lithographer from Massachusetts who had set up shop on Nassau Street the previous year, leapt to prominence with his prints of the fire; one of them inspired a scene in Harrington’s New Grand Moving Diorama, which opened at the American Museum in 1836.

In succeeding days, the press and others counted costs. Eighty buildings had burned on Front Street alone, 674 in all. Almost every structure south of Wall and east of Broad was to some degree a casualty. Estimates of losses in buildings and merchandise ranged from eighteen to twenty-six million dollars, more than three times the cost of the Erie Canal. Twenty-three of the city’s twenty-six fire insurance companies went bankrupt. Four thousand clerks were temporarily thrown out of work, along with thousands of cartmen and porters.

The most telling statistics, however, were these: only two people died in the fire—a function of the commercial district’s almost complete lack of residential housing. And within a year, five hundred new buildings had been built, the area entirely restored, indeed dramatically improved—testimony to the underlying strength of the mercantile economy and the tremendous momentum of the real estate boom.


On December 19, less than two weeks after the fire, city officials, bankers, brokers, manufacturers, and merchants met to map the course of recovery. A committee of 125 citizens—“all the best and most influential men in the city,” said Hone—turned to the tasks of thanking neighbors (Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Newark), providing emergency relief, investigating the fire, and applying for aid from the federal, state, and city governments.

Former treasury secretary Albert Gallatin and Mayor Lawrence went to Washington, where Lawrence argued that the national government should consider itself as “a large capitalist, with an overflowing treasury . . . whose duty it is to promote the welfare and prosperity of the people.” Congress kept its treasure to itself, though it did audio­rize the Treasury to remit duties already paid on imports newly destroyed and to extend the time importers had to pay duties on goods that survived.

Philip Hone’s delegation fared better in Albany. In January 1835 the state authorized the city to float a loan of up to six million dollars, a new precedent for disaster relief. Municipal authorities borrowed a million, then provided loans at 5 percent, increasing the credit available in the city. The Canal Commission doubled this line of credit by shifting another million of its funds to the city’s banks, thus allowing them to accommodate strapped customers and forestall mercantile failures.

In the meantime, business went on virtually uninterrupted. The stock exchange resumed trading after four days. Over six hundred dislodged firms set up operations in temporary accommodations nearby, driving rental prices in lower Manhattan up by 100 to 150 percent almost overnight. That instant boomlet triggered a far bigger one. The area’s businesses had long been trying to insert their nineteenth-century institutions into seventeenth-century streets by widening them one at a time, at great expense. The calamity, by demolishing the old structures, opened the way to transform crooked alleys into straight, broad, gas-lit thoroughfares. City officials announced plans to render “the entire surface of that section much cleaner, drier and more eligible for the transaction of business than it has heretofore been.”

This promise, coupled with the bid-up of prices by dislocated firms, sent land values soaring. Within a month, Hone noted, lots in the “burnt district” were selling “at most enormous prices, greater than they would have brought before the fire, when covered with valuable buildings.” One parcel of lots purchased earlier in the century for ninety-three thousand dollars now yielded $765,000 at auction.

Postfire reconstruction started almost instantly, with Arthur Tappan first off the mark. At dawn the day after, he told his clerks: “We must rebuild immediately.” One went to fetch an architect; the rest fitted up temporary quarters. At noon the Journal of Commerce carried a notice announcing the store was open for business as usual, “by the blessings of God,” and by midafternoon workmen began clearing the still warm rubble.

In short order, the new-style high-rise, Greek Revival granite warehouses were going up everywhere, with iron shutters and independent foot-thick brick walls as fire protection. Even buildings still standing were transformed; masons knocked out the old brick and brownstone ground floors and hoisted stylish granite piers into place. Block after block took on a dignified new look. The Delmonicos, whose establishment had been wiped out, bought a triangular plot at the junction of Beaver, William, and South William (formerly Mill) streets. Work started in August 1836 on a three-and-a-halfstory brick-and-brownstone structure with marble trim; in a nicely defiant touch, the marble porch pillars were brought from Pompeii. By December the carpets and gas fixtures were being fitted into the luxurious first- and second-story saloons—of an “appearance far surpassing anything of the kind in the city”—and the third floor had facilities for private dining, evoking Parisian splendor, as did the immense wine vaults for sixteen thousand bottles.

Grandest of all was the new Merchants’ Exchange. Within a week of the fire, the Merchants’ Exchange Company solicited plans, choosing an aggressive Greek Revival design by Isaiah Rogers, with a twelve-columned Corinthian colonnade. A million dollars in subscriptions was raised by February 1836. By April construction was underway on the site of its predecessor, expanded to cover an entire block. Built of Massachusetts granite—not a sliver of wood was used in constructing the floor—it featured an enormous central hall surmounted by a vast saucer dome eighty feet in diameter. When it opened for business five years later, it would include offices for insurance companies, bankers, brokers, the Chamber of Commerce, and, later, the New York Stock and Exchange Board, as well as a reading room stocked with papers from every state in the union and countries overseas, together with a foreign letter office. It was frequently compared to the Paris Bourse.

All along Wall Street, banks and insurance companies began demolishing their former residences—those red brick facades, fanlight doorways, and dormer windows that now seemed so old fashioned—and erecting stone-front porticoed Doric temples. Within a few years, the street boasted perhaps the greatest concentration of classical columns built since the fall of Rome. By the anniversary of the catastrophe, Hone observed, “fine and commodious stores, much improved in their appearance and construction” nearly covered the “burnt district.”

Ramifications rippled outward. The fire expelled much of the dry-goods trade from Pearl Street, making it more strictly a financial center, and many firms shifted west toward the fashionable quarter around lower Broadway. Retail shops—jewelers, watchmakers, bookstores, merchant tailors, hatters, confectioners, carpet and fancy drygoods stores—spread northward up the thoroughfare. Broadway became a business district up to and beyond the City Hall Park area, where numerous publishers, law firms, and newspapers now clustered.

This development touched off a pell-mell flight of the wealthy. Private dwellings were turned into boardinghouses, converted into offices, or torn down to make way for warehouses and shops. A writer in the New-York Mirror in April 1836 reported: “It is said that in one year, there will be scarcely a private residence or boarding house below Wall Street.” He added, “Ladies will, hereafter, scarcely extend their promenades further down than the Park; and what will become of the Battery, heaven only knows.” Some suggested the corporation sell it off to private owners for storehouses and dockyards, though this touched off a preservationist uproar that saved the park for the present.

Hone himself was swept away in March 1836 when he sold his house at 235 Broadway, across from City Hall, to the owner of the adjacent American Hotel, who wanted an annex. Hone received sixty thousand dollars for a building he had purchased fifteen years earlier for twenty-five thousand dollars. “I have turned myself out of doors,” he wrote wryly, “but $60,000 is a great deal of money.”

If the new Merchants’ Exchange was the symbol of the Wall Street financial district, then Astor House, a block from Hone’s former residence and just across from the Park Theater, became the emblem of the expanding commercial sector. Astor had long been attuned to the fortune awaiting those who cultivated the city’s entertainment and hostelry industries. In his prior ventures as landlord-impresario, including the Park Theater, Vauxhall Gardens, and the City Hotel, Astor had let others take the lead, then moved in to absorb a going concern. Now he decided to be an innovator. Even before the great fire accelerated downtown development, Astor had grasped that the area around City Hall, having been on the town’s periphery for two hundred years, was emerging as New York’s new civic and commercial center, with its park and churches, theaters and newspapers. By the mid-1830s, moreover, there was an enormous flow of tourists and visiting businessmen—over seventy thousand annually (nearly half the city’s popula­tion of two hundred thousand). Astor would capitalize on this traffic with a mammoth luxury hotel to rival Boston’s Tremont House.

When it opened in 1836 many thought the Greek Revival structure the “grandest mass” in town—not beautiful, but impressive. Five stories of Quincy granite were arranged around a central courtyard. Its 309 rooms at times housed up to eight hundred guests. Each floor offered bathing and toilet facilities—a real novelty, something even the finest mansions and elegant boardinghouses usually lacked. Astor House also featured gas lighting provided by its own plant, as well as a table d’hote eatery at which guests and city merchants could choose from among oyster pie, round of beef, roast wild duck—in all, thirty meat and fish dishes each day. Soon its main hallway was bustling with guests, the street in front was piled with luggage, and a New York institution had launched its long career.


The city’s economy did more than simply rebound from the triple blows of cholera, Bank War, and fire; it shifted into overdrive. Peter Cooper had hoped the great blaze—which in his opinion had been a “flagrant providential warning”—would curb the frenzied speculation on Wall Street, but in 1836 the volume of trading on the NYS&EB soared upward. Land transactions in the city set astonishing records. The value of Manhattan real estate, registered at $143 million in 1835, mounted to $233 million within twelve months. Most of this also represented speculation, Governor Marcy warned in 1836, with plots and buildings being purchased “not for the purpose of being occupied by the buyers, but to be again put in the market, and sold at still higher prices.”

The surge was stoked by a tremendous expansion in the availability of credit. Money was cheap and plentiful, inspiring diligent entrepreneurs and speculative manipulators alike to expand their operations with borrowed funds. State banks, freed from Biddle’s fierce scrutiny, pyramided their modest specie bases into mountains of paper credit, and across the country legislatures chartered over two hundred new banks in three years, pushing the total to over six hundred. In New York State the Bank Commission fought to slow the increase, and the legislature refused all new charter proposals in 1835. But 1836 brought a torrent of new banks, many of which quickly issued notes far beyond any reasonable ratio to their holdings of specie. The nation’s specie supply was itself rising, in the form of a fortuitous glut of silver, occasioned by a rising Mexican output of the precious metal and a declining demand for it in Britain and China. Banks bulging with bullion multiplied their treasure by pumping out more paper banknotes. In addition, by 1836 the tariff and land sale revenues pouring in to the federal government had extinguished the national debt. The treasury, awash in a two-milliondollar surplus, was obliged under the new rules to turn it over to the pet banks, some of which, engorged with cash, went on a reckless lending spree. All told, the country’s money supply, which had jumped from $144 million in 1831 to $172 million in 1834, climbed to $276 million in 1836.

This touched off an inflationary firestorm. The cost of living rose rapidly through 1834 and 1835, then shot up 66 percent in the first two months of 1836. Philip Hone noted in his diary: “Living in New York is exorbitantly dear, and it falls pretty hard upon persons like me, who live upon their income, and harder still upon that large and respectable class consisting of the officers and clerks of public institutions, whose sup­port is derived from fixed salaries.” Beneath the range of his troubled gaze lay the great mass of the population, upon whom the great upward leap in the cost of living wreaked far greater havoc than it did on any of the victims he’d mentioned.

Indeed the disparate ways New Yorkers experienced the inflationary spiral was characteristic of their differential experience of the boom years as a whole. For some it meant fabulous profits and pursuit of pleasure; for others, degraded work, higher prices and rents, poorer living conditions, a rigidifying class structure, and a new determination to organize in defense of a crumpling way of life.

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