Ask the average New Yorker to name the first thing that comes to
mind when you say the words “fire disaster” and you will probably
hear a range of answers. Those who have not experienced its destruction
firsthand might recount the litany of nightly news reports that tell of
tragic home blazes, uncontrollable Western forest fires, or the rare, criminal
arsonist. Others might offer stories about wartime -- the fire bombing of
Dresden, Germany during World War II, perhaps -- or angry riots like those
that occurred in Harlem in the summer of 1964 during which several businesses
and homes were burned out. While all will remember the flames that enveloped
portions of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, few will say that
the conflagration itself seemed a citywide threat. In 21st-century New York,
fires can be identified and controlled; in this age, they are hardly the
stuff of widespread, unharnessable, urban disaster.
In 1835, however, this was not the case. Because of its lethality, fire could not have been more dreaded. With residents crowded into narrow, bustling areas; a preponderance of rickety, wooden buildings; imperfect access to water; and a mostly non-professional firefighting force, 19th century American cities existed in constant fear, held hostage to the destructive potential of a single, stray spark. Such a spark ignited New York City’s Great Fire of 1835. The Great Fire, which raged for two days, tested the ability of the city to organize necessary public services and ensure the safety of its residents. Like other extreme events in New York, it also helped to magnify social antagonisms and structural weaknesses that so lay just below the surface of the otherwise vital, increasingly prosperous metropolis.