“Burning of the Merchant’s Exchange” painted lithograph by Alfred Hoffy (Image courtesy of the NYPL Digital Archives)
On December 16, 1835 a devastating fire ripped through the financial center of Lower Manhattan, close to Hanover Square. On a frigid, snow-covered evening, the fire started in a warehouse and within 15 minutes 50 buildings were engulfed in flames. Due to the fire, 23 of the city’s 26 insurance agencies at the time went into bankruptcy.
New York City in 1835 was a major financial hub in the growing United States–half of the nations exports left through New York Harbor and the port handled a third of the imports. The city was crippled in this instance by a limited volunteer firefighter brigade who could not properly fight the fires due to below-zero temperatures that would freeze the water from their hoses. Additionally, the city had an inadequate water supply resulting in a fire “so great that the glow could be seen all the way in Philadelphia,” according to a Post report.
The area affected by the fire, shown here in red. (Image via A History of NY)
The Post reports that only 2 people were killed during this great blaze, but only because very few people lived in that part of Manhattan and most were gone for the night. The fire had one positive effect on the city: the Croton Water System was subsequently installed, an intricate system of aqueducts that brought water in from Westchester County. Today, we even have street-level water sampling stations.