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New York's First Great Fire - from Harper's


The first great fire in New York happened in September, 1776, just after Washington had been driven from the city. New York was then a small but beautiful town; it reached only to the lower end of the Park, but Broadway was lined with shade trees, and its fine houses stretched away on both sides to the Battery. Trinity Church stood, as now, at the head of Wall Street. St. Paul's—a building of great cost and beauty for the times—almost bounded the upper end of Broadway. The British soldiers marched into the pleasant but terrified city, the leading patriots fled with Washington's army, and in the hot days of the autumn of 1776 New York seemed to offer a pleasant home for the officers and men of the invading forces. They took possession of the deserted country-seats of the patriots at Bloomingdale or Murray Hill, and occupied the finest houses on the best streets of the town. Here they hoped to pass a winter of ease, and in the spring complete without difficulty the rout of the disheartened Americans.

But one night in September the cry of fire was heard, and the flames began to spread from some low wooden buildings near Whitehall, where now are the Produce Exchange and Staten Island ferries. In those days there were no steam-engines nor hydrants, no Croton water nor well-organized fire-companies. But as the flames continued to advance, the British soldiers sprang from their beds and began to labor to check the fire with all the means in their power. They used, no doubt, buckets of water brought from the cisterns and the river. They found, it was said, several persons setting houses on fire, and in their rage threw them into the flames. But their labor was all in vain. All night the fire spread over the finest quarter of New York. From Whitehall it passed up Broadway on the eastern side, devouring everything, until it was stopped by a large new brick house near Wall Street. It crossed to the western side, and laid nearly the whole street in ruins. It fastened on the roof and tower of Trinity Church, and soon, of all its graceful proportions, only a few shattered fragments remained. Then the flames passed rapidly up to the west of Broadway from Trinity as far as St. Paul's; houses and shops crumbled before them; a long array of buildings seem to have fed the raging fires, until at last they reached the walls of the great church itself, and were about to envelop it in ruins. But here, it is said, the zeal of the people checked their progress. They mounted the roof of the church, covered it with streams of water, put out the sparks that fell on it, until at last the building was saved, the flames died out, and St. Paul's stands to-day almost as it stood in 1776, the monument of the close of the great fire.

It is not difficult to imagine the melancholy change wrought in the appearance of the city. Broadway, once so beautiful, remained until the end of the war in great part a street of ruins. From Wall Street to the Battery, from St. Paul's Church to the Bowling Green, the miserable waste was never repaired. Up its desolate track paraded each morning the British officers and their followers, shining in red and gold, to the sound of martial music; but they had no leisure nor wish to repair the ravages of war. On the wasted district arose a collection of tents and hovels, called "Canvas Town." Here lived the miserable poor, the wretched, the vile; robbers who at night made the ruins unsafe, and incendiaries who never ceased to terrify the unlucky city. The British garrison was never suffered to remain long at ease.

It was said that the great fire of 1776 was the work of the patriots, who had resolved to burn New York, and drive the invaders from their safe resting-place. The question of its origin has never been decided. It may have been altogether accidental, or possibly the work of design. But it was followed by a singular succession of other fires, during the period of the British ascendency, that seem to show some settled plan to annoy and discourage the invaders. The newspapers of the time are filled with accounts of the misfortunes of the garrison and the royalists.