The Great Fire of New York
Almost exactly 110 years after the Great Fire of London, another major conflagration occurred in a large city, but this time under very different circumstances.
In September 1776, the American Revolutionary War had been going on for close to 18 months, while just two months earlier, the 13 states at war with Great Britain had declared their independence, thus effectively creating the United States of America.
At the time, the city of New York occupied only the lower half of Manhattan, and had a population of about 25,000 that was fairly evenly divided between Patriots (those in favour of American independence) and Loyalists (those loyal to British rule). 1776 saw a number of significant conflicts in the area, but finally, on 15 September, British forces under the command of General William Howe landed on Manhattan, fully seizing the city the following day.
The start of the Great Fire of New York
The Great Fire of New York started shortly after midnight on the morning of 21 September. How it started is a matter of some debate.
According to a prisoner being held on HMS Pearl, it started at the Fighting Cocks Tavern, near Whitehall Slip, close to The Battery (formerly Battery Park) at the southern tip of Manhattan.
However, many believe that the fire was started deliberately by Patriots under the command of George Washington – indeed, earlier in the year, that very action had been proposed by prominent Patriots, including General Nathanael Greene, who wanted to prevent the British being able to benefit from their occupation. The matter had been put to the Second Continental Congress, but had been rejected. The way the fire seemed to start in multiple places has also led some to conclude that it was indeed arson, but many historians have concluded that no evidence for the charge stands up to serious scrutiny.
Meanwhile, some Patriots thought that the British started the fire so that they could more easily plunder the city, but this also seems unlikely.
No formal charges were ever made against anyone from either side, so accident rather than arson seems to be the most likely cause.
The spread of the fire
As with the Great Fire of London, a combination of dry weather, strong winds and tightly packed buildings allowed the fire to spread rapidly. It burned well into the next day and eventually destroyed anywhere between 10 and 25 per cent of the city’s 4000 buildings. In the process, it wiped out most of the city between Broadway and the Hudson River. One of the buildings destroyed was the original Trinity Church, located on the junction between Wall Street and Broadway. (The current Trinity Church is the third on the site and was built between 1839 and 1846.)
Many people lost their lives, but how many were directly as a result of the fire and how many were killed by forces on one side or the other in the conflict is unknown. No official death toll exists.
Could the fire have been prevented or contained?
In theory, most fires can be prevented, but in the case of the Great Fire of New York it’s hard to be confident about how, given the uncertainty surrounding its cause. Arson is perhaps the hardest of all fires to prevent – you can make it harder by making sure you don’t leave the tools that enable arson lying around, but if someone is really determined, there’s not a great deal you can do to stop them (especially when you’re in an 18th-century city with mostly wooden buildings and no fire control regulations).
As with the Great Fire of London, the most likely cause was carelessness, in that the fire probably started as a result of a fire within a property (in this case an inn as opposed to the baker’s in Pudding Lane) not being put out properly before someone retired for the night. A simple modern smoke alarm would have detected the problem swiftly. Unfortunately, by the time anyone was aware that there was a problem at the Fighting Cocks Tavern, it would almost certainly already have been too late.
As noted earlier, any attempt to control the fire from spreading beyond the immediate area once it had taken hold was mainly hindered by prevailing conditions. Although most successful cities are built close to rivers and other waterways – and we’ve already seen that the Fighting Cocks was right next to the port – methods of getting that water supply to where it was needed were not sophisticated. In the end, it was a change of wind direction, as opposed to any active intervention, that seems to have put paid to the fire.
At Scutum London, we provide fire risk assessments to businesses and organisations across London and Surrey, together with fire alarms, fire extinguishers, sprinklers and other fire detection and control systems. Given the chance, we would have been able to use our knowledge and expertise to make numerous suggestions that, if implemented, would have almost certainly made the damage done by the Great Fire of New York considerably less, regardless of its initial cause.
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