The worst conflagration to strike a young New York City was documented in a diary by a prominent resident.
Philip Hone was born near the southern tip of Manhattan, on Dutch Street during 1780. A descendant of an established family, Hone spent his entire life in this area of the city. He became a master of the social graces and an intimate of the great people of the day.
During his adult life, Hone entertained many celebrities, including Daniel Webster, Henry Clay and Charles Dickens. He held positions with New York Hospital, Columbia College, the New-York Historical Society and many other institutions important to the growing city. He also served as its mayor.
Hone was a very observant man and he kept a diary. From his writings, historians have learned much about the man and much about the city in which he lived.
Documenting the Great Fire
During his life, the worst conflagration to strike any American city up to that time become known as the Great Fire of 1835.
From Hone’s diary:
December 17 – How shall I record the events of last night, or how attempt to describe the most awful calamity which ever visited these United States? The greatest loss by fire that has ever been known, with the exception, perhaps, of the conflagration of Moscow, and that was an incidental concomitant of war…Nearly one-half of the first ward is in ashes, five hundred to seven hundred stores, which, with their contents, are valued at $20,000,000 to $40,000,000, are now lying in an indistinguishable mass of ruins…
The fire broke out at nine o’clock last evening. I was writing in the library when the alarm was given, and went immediately down. The night was intensely cold, which was one cause of the unprecedented progress of the flames, for the water froze in the hydrants, and the engines and their hose could not be worked without great difficulty. The firemen, too, had been on duty all last night, and were almost incapable of performing their usual services. The fire originated in the store of Comstock & Adams, in Merchant Street – a narrow, crooked street, filled with high stores lately erected and occupied by dry-goods and hardware merchants, which led from Hanover to Pearl Street.
The stories of that night are many and included several notable sidebars:
- The Franklin Fire Company of Philadelphia rushed to New York with equipment to help fight the blaze.
- The Journal of Commerce building at 19 Beaver Street was saved by using vinegar taken from hogsheads stored in an adjoining yard. This business newspaper was published for more than 100 years before it merged with other media and became a weekly magazine.
- A monument to commemorate the fire was erected on a building years later at 90 Pearl Street. When the building was demolished, the monument was damaged. It was to be restored, but has since been lost.
- Only two people reportedly died during the fire. Historic Fraunces Tavern survived.
On December 18 and 19, Hone walked through the broken city to see the ruins. He recorded his impressions in his diary: It is an awful sight. The whole area from Wall Street to Coenties Slip, bounded by Broad Street to the river, with the exception of Broad Street, the Wall Street front between William and Broad, and the blocks bounded by Broad Street, Pearl Street, the south side of Coenties Slip and South Street, are now a mass of smoking ruins.
A number of additional authentic and dramatic accounts about this destructive fire still exist. These include a report by newspaper editor and publisher James Gordon Bennett, a detailed summary of the after-effects by writer Augustine Costello and several eye-witness accounts by merchants. But, probably the most penetrating and exciting analysis was the account documented by Philip Hone, known as the “Beau of Old Manhattan.”