The Great Fire of 1776 in NYC


September 21, 1776. A great fire commenced in a small wooden house on the wharf near the Whitehall Slip. It was then occupied by a number of men and women of a bad character. The fire began late at night. There being but a very few inhabitants in the city, in a short time it raged tremendously. It burned all the houses on the east side of Whitehall Slip and the west side of Broad street to Beaver street. A providential and happy circumstance occurred at this time: the wind was then southwesterly. About 2 o'clock that morning the wind veered to the southeast. ' This carried the flames of the fire to the north-westward, and burned both sides of Beaver street to the east side of Broadway, then crossed Broadway to Beaver Lane, and burning all the houses on both sides of
Broadway, with some few houses in New street to Rector street, and to John Harrison, Esq.'s, three-story brick house, which house stopped the fire on the east side of Broadway; from thence it continued, burning all the houses in Lumber street and those in the rear of the houses on the west side of Broadway to St. Paul's Church, then continued burning the houses on both sides of Partition street and all the houses in the rear (again) of the west side of Broadway to North River. The fire did not stop until it got into Mortkile (now Barclay) street. The college yard and the vacant ground in the rear of the same put an end to this awful and tremendous fire.

Trinity Church being burned was occasioned by the flakes of fire that fell on the south side of the roof. The southerly wind fanned those flakes of fire in a short time to an amazing blaze, and it soon became out of human power to extinguish the same, the roof of this noble edifice being so steep that no person could go on it. " St. Paul's Church was in the like perilous situation. The roof being
flat, with a balustrade on the eaves, a number of the citizens went on the same and extinguished the flakes of fire as they fell on the roof. Thus happily was this beautiful church saved from the destruction of this dreadful fire, which threatened the ruin thereof and that of the whole city. "

The Lutheran Church being contiguous to houses adjoining the same fire, it was impossible to save it from destruction. This fire was so furious and violently hot that no person could go near it, and there were no fire engines to be had at that time in the city. "
The number of houses that were burned and destroyed in this city at that awful conflagration were thus, viz.:
From Mortkile street to Courtlandt street 167
From Courtlandt street to Beaver street 175
From Beaver street to the East River 151 .

There being very few inhabitants in the city at the time, and many of those were afraid to venture at night in the streets, for fear of being taken up as suspicious persons.

A Mr. White, a decent citizen and house carpenter, rather too violent a loyalist, and latterly had addicted himself to liquor, was on the night of the fire hanged on a tavern signpost, at the corner of Cherry and Roosevelt streets. Several of the citizens were sent to the provost guard for examination, and some of them remained there two or three days, until they could give satisfactory evidence of their loyalty. " Mr. Hugh Gain, in his 'Universal Register' for the year 1787, page 119, says: 'New York is about a mile and a half in length and half a mile broad, containing before the fires on the 21st of September, 1776, and 3d of August, 1778, about 4,200 houses and 30,000 inhabitants.' "

The Sons of Liberty were accused by the British of being the incendiaries, and a number of them were thrust into the flames in revenge for the supposed outrage. Several citizens were also arrested and imprisoned, but the charge of being accessories was not sustained, and they were released. So great was the distress among the inhabitants "that they tacked sheets of canvas to the remnants of charred walls and standing chimneys, thus forming a city of tents, in which they bivouacked."

This fire occurred at the time when Howe's troops were stretched in a cordon across the island, in readiness to fall upon the army of
Washington, encamped upon the heights on the opposite side of Harlem Plains, Washington occupying as headquarters the Roger Morris house, which overlooks the Harlem a little below High Bridge, and is now known as the Jumel Mansion. The loyalist owner of the property, Colonel Morris, had married the beautiful Mary Phillipse, whom Washington at one time wooed in vain. In this house battles were planned, consultations were held with chiefs of the Indian tribes, "and secret instructions were issued to the 'spy of the neutral ground.' After the Revolution the estate was confiscated, and was then purchased by John. Jacob Astor, who sold it
to Stephen Jumel. After Jumel's death his widow married Aaron Burr, but he left her shortly after, and sought seclusion on Staten Island. Upon the keystone of an arch in the main hall is the date 1758, and from its piazza may be seen the lower city, Brooklyn Bridge, seven counties in two different States, three rivers and Long Island Sound. While at the Morris house Washington became acquainted with Captain Alexander Hamilton through General Greene, and established the friendship which linked their lives and fame together." New York City took title to this property in 1903 from the widow of General Ferdinand P. Earle, the consideration
being $235,000.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Great Fire of 1776 in NYC
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Cradle Days of New York (1609-1825) by Hugh Macatamney; New York-Drew & Lewis, Publishers 1909
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