NEARLY every account of a Manhattan landmark ends with the melancholy words “destroyed by fire.” Some of them were rebuilt again and again, but like the old Bowery Theater, which went up in smoke four or five times, seemed fated to extinction by that tragic means.
Some of the great fires of the Colonial period have been already noted; while immensely destructive to property, they cost few lives because of the scattered houses and smallness of population.
The great fire of 1776, which occurred soon after the British took possession of the city with armed forces, found relatively few of the inhabitants at home, “by reason of the presence of the enemy.” The British said the rebels had fired the town on departure; and the Americans said the British had fired it when they found so many inhabitants had departed. The point was still being argued when the Revolution closed; but the correct cause seems to be this. The gay girls of the town stayed on to entertain the troops, and it was in a bawdy house near Whitehall Slip that the conflagration began. Before it ended, the wind unfortunately changing during the fire, it had destroyed 493 buildings. First it roared up Broadway, fed well by wooden structures until it was stopped by the brick Harrison house on the east side of the thoroughfare and St. Paul’s Chapel on the west side, where citizens bravely stood wetting down the roof with buckets of water. Trinity’s roof was too steep for that; the famous old church caught fire and was partially destroyed. Then the wind swung from south to southeast, and the fire went with it down to the edge of the Hudson. Owing to the unsettled aspect of the times the whole southwest quarter of town remained for years little more than a rubbish heap on which squatters, described as “very lewd and dissolute persons,” lived in canvas-covered shacks, the frames of which were salvaged from the ruins. Canvas Town, as it was called, became a sink of iniquity.
Another big fire got under way two years later, August 7, 1778, at Cruger’s Wharf, but the soldiery subdued it with a loss of fifty houses.
Eleven incendiaries are mentioned as having touched off the next one in 1804, which destroyed fifteen houses in Wall Street, seventeen in Front Street and eight in Water Street, for more than a million-dollar loss. This roused the citizens to improve the fire department and to build of brick, as most of the destroyed buildings were of wood, and it was seen that the hazard to business was tremendous,
The next large fire, in 1811, broke out in Chatham Street near the Duane Street corner, destroyed 100 buildings, but lives in local history as the occasion of an extraordinary feat of heroism. The steeple of the old Brick Church caught fire and the whole structure seemed doomed. Came forward then two humble men, a sailor and one who is described as “a prisoner on the limits” who scaled the steeple at peril of their lives, extinguished the fire, saved the church and were duly rewarded. The prisoner was even freed.
December 16, 1835, saw the outbreak of the most destructive fire to date. Starting at 25 Merchant Street, it destroyed the Merchants Exchange, the Reformed Dutch Church, and all South Street from Wall Street to Coenties Alley, where a building was blown up to check its course. It also did heavy damage in Stone, Beaver, Broad, William, and Hanover streets and Ex-change Place, destroying 674 tenements in about twenty-four blocks. The heaviest losses occurred along the waterfront and in warehouses “of our largest ship-ping and wholesaling dry good merchants, and filled with the richest products of every portion of the globe.” The Courier and Inquirer set the loss at $17,000,000 $4,000,000 in buildings, $13,000,000 in stocks of merchandise. Part of this same district was burned over again ten years later, Broad and Stone streets being the worst sufferers. The fire of 1845 also leaped Broadway, doing some damage on the west side of that thoroughfare.
Crystal Palace, the giant exhibition hall built in 185253 in Reservoir Square, now Bryant Park, burned to the ground while the 1858 Fair of the American Institute was in progress, with tremendous loss in commercial exhibits and famous sculptures forever irreplaceable. Barnum’s American Museum burned in 1865, was rebuilt, and burned again in 1868.
The heaviest single fire loss of the twentieth century on Manhattan was the Equitable fire of January 9, 1912, where water froze as it fell. While the. interior of the buildings was gutted, the walls held, preventing a general conflagration in the financial district. Be-cause the building was supposed to be fireproof, in the then limited meaning of the word, the Equitable fire caused a mighty furore in the press. Investigation showed that the fire began in inflammable material in the basement, got under brisk headway because of delay in reporting, and then could not be checked be-cause of frozen hydrants and hose.
Manhattan’s fire menace has been decreasing for some years, as a result of the erection of more resistant buildings and improvement in fire-fighting methods, including inspection. Fires which cost lives occur chiefly in the old-style tenement districts, where they are speedily isolated and quenched; the more stub-born fires are those of the waterfront, where piers and ships burn with a persistence which seems to baffle “smoke-eaters” accustomed to quick victories in other quarters.
More fires, of course, because of increased population and increased risks, but a marked decline in the seriousness of those fires and in their costs. Manhattan’s fire loss decreased one-third from 1926 to 1932. Clearly the Fire Department pays its way, though part of the victory may be ascribed to improved construction.
To watch the Fire Department applying itself to the average small conflagration is to observe the triumph of organization over chance and confusion. It arrives in force; the impression on the onlooker is that these hordes of cool, determined men are sufficient to tear the structure brick from brick if that is the only way to keep the fire from spreading. Such a puny element as flame seems to have no chance against these disciplined, well armed cohorts. Swiftly they proceed with their reconnaisance, lay their hose lines, run up their ladders. When the scouts return, all is in readiness for the attack. In they go with axes, chemical extinguishers, nozzles, or whatever else is indicated; and when they emerge it is with the bland air of a tomcat returning from some puny but satisfactory victory. The spectator may smell a little smoke; but rarely will he see a flame, though he trail fire alarms for years like a pyromaniac. In the old days the corps was full of heroes, and fire-fighting was one of the more dangerous occupations; now about the only chance a fireman has to get his name in the papers is to rescue some exhibitionist who changes his mind about committing suicide by jumping off a ledge when he sees how far it is to the ground. Firemen are very good at that, and between them the police and the fire laddies are working out a technique to meet such situations in a properly scientific manner. The most effective method so far developed is to have the police talk gently to a person in distress while the fireman lets himself down by a rope, gives himself a jolly swing, and kicks the demonstrant back through the window into the room.
Anything approaching the sweeping conflagration of the past seems extremely unlikely in the Manhattan of the present. No large group of wooden houses is now to be found on the island; and the few scattered wooden houses remaining are required to have fire-resistant roofs. For a fire to spread from one structure to another is almost unknown; and the average fire is confined to the floor in which it originates. Manhattan’s worst fires of recent years have occurred in old-style tenements or in loft buildings where materials used for manufacture present special hazards. Fire, on the whole, is one of the disappearing hazards of urban life; even in the fringes of the less thickly settled boroughs, where wooden houses abound and small-town conditions obtain, the fire demon is noticeably on the run, pursued by the boys in blue.