By Richard Howe
On December 31, 1761, “the Frequent Instances of the Extensive Destruction made by Fire in many populous City’s [sic]” prompted the legislature of the Province of New York to pass an act “for the more Effectual Prevention of Fires and for Regulating of Buildings in the City of New York.” The act’s principal concern was the number of the houses in the city that were still roofed with wooden shingles...
The protests continued on past the new deadline, and on December 31, 1768, the act was suspended until January 1, 1774. True to form, on May 1, 1776, four months after the act had become effective again, some 1,600 affected residents of the city petitioned Lieutenant Governor Cadwallader Colden, protesting the act and urging its suspension, this time citing not only the scarcity of materials and their cost but also the hardship to workers in the building trades that would result from the chilling effect of the act on the city’s construction industry. The petition was referred to committee, where it languished and died. Then on April 1, 1775 — less than three weeks before the Battles of Lexington and Concord signalled the start of the War of Independence — the slate and tiles act was radically amended to make it into just the opposite of what it had been originally: it would now be lawful “to erect any Building in [New York] with Wood or other Materials and cover the same with Shingles or Boards” south of a line running irregularly but more or less along the line of today’s Fulton Street from the Hudson River to the East River, so long as the building was no more than 14 feet high. The amended act also made it lawful south of the line “to cover the Flat of any roof with Boards or Shingles, provided such Flat do not exceed two equal fifth Parts of the Span of such Roof and there be erected around the same Flat a substantial Balcony or Balustrade and a Platform and Steps to the top of every Chimney.” Eighteen months later a large part of the city was burnt to the ground in a single night.
Whether roofing the buildings in New York with slate or tile starting in 1762 as the act of 1761 required would have been enough to prevent the fire of 1776 from reaching such disastrous proportions is a question that could scarcely be answered, then or now, though it is hard not to believe that it would have limited the damage to some extent. Whether the fire was the result of arson or was just an accident that had been waiting to happen, is another question that will no doubt also remain forever in doubt, but General Washington had orders from the Continental Congress not to burn the city, and neither the British occupiers nor the resident Loyalists had any reason to burn it, so an argument can be made that it was an accidental fire, possibly even a very minor one to begin with, minor enough that under ordinary circumstances a team of fire fighters working one or two of the city’s hand-pumped fire engines might have brought it under control before even one building was totally destroyed.
But by the night of the fire, New York was very nearly a ghost town: as much as 80% of the city’s population had fled, leaving only perhaps 5,000 in a city that had built accommodations for 25,000. The fire fighters who might have been able to contain the fire were probably not available, or not nearly in the numbers previously on hand, and it is likely that even much of the equipment remained unused. Whether or not there was anyone left in the city who knew how to operate a fire engine is another unknown, but it is a virtually certainty that many of the houses and other buildings in the path of the fire were vacant, as were many of the others in the city, so that there was no one present to fetch the “Leather Bucketts” that every building was supposed to have, which in turn would mean not only that there were not enough men available but not even enough buckets to form a proper bucket brigade, and many such bucket brigades were surely have been needed to bring the fire under control, if indeed it could have been controlled at all, once it really got going. Exceptionally high winds and an abundant supply of fuel —- the hazard of building with wood -— were enough to do the rest, and of course the boards and shingles didn’t help.
It’s possible that Grim arrived at his figure using the same method he used in 1813 to estimate the number of houses standing in New York in 1744, which, according to his own memorandum, was to sum the lengths in feet of the street fronts in the built up part of the city, divide this sum by an assumed average lot width of 25 feet, and subtract from the result the number of lots he remembered as having been vacant at the time. Grim made his 1744 estimate using one of Ratzer’s maps of the city; using the same approach, I come up with a round-number estimate of about 600 buildings in the area burnt out by the 1776 fire as delineated by Grim on his own map. This is about 100 more than Grim’s estimate — the difference might be due to the fact that unlike Grim, I find myself unable to remember which lots were vacant at the time…. Be that as it may, this result lends support to Grim’s estimate: 600 is only 22% more than 493, not 100% or 200% more. Moreover, the exercise shows fairly conclusively that it would have been next to impossible to fit 1,000 houses into the burnt out area, to say nothing of 1,500.
It’s probably impossible to come up with the exact or even an approximate ratio of non-residential to residential buildings in later 18th century New York, but estimates based on a ratio of one to five -- to use, for simplicity’s sake, a very round number —- at least don’t lead to absurd results, and although plausibility is surely the weakest of all arguments, the results obtained with this ratio accord fairly well with such numbers as we do have. Based on a one to five ratio and the reduced figure of 3,500 dwelling houses derived from Gaine’s estimate, the total number of buildings of all kinds, both residential and non-residential, standing in the city prior to 1776 fire would have been about 4,200 -- that this figure agrees with Gaine’s unmodified estimate is purely coincidental — which would in turn imply that no more than about 3,650 were left standing after losing 550 or so to the 1776 and 1778 fires; the precision is of course spurious: an artifact of any such calculation. The same one to five ratio applied to Noah Webster’s report of 3,340 dwelling houses in New York in 1785–1786 yields an estimate of about 4,000 buildings of all kinds in the city at that time, which would suggest an increase of some 350 over post-fire estimate for 1778. With some allowance for rebuilding in the two to three years since the Patriots’ return — figures of 100 or more new buildings a year are not at all out of line with the two decades before the occupation — the fires of 1776 and 1778 would then account for most if not all of the losses incurred during the occupation.
Richard Howe is a frequent contributor to the Blotter, and is writing a history of New York as a built environment. He also runs the photographic study New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners.
I. N. Phelps Stokes’ index to his Iconography of Manhattan Island (1915–1928) lists nearly 50 “disastrous” fires in New York between 1628 and 1913.
A.E. Costello’s Our Firemen (1887 ) is a richly illustrated compendium of information abut fires, fire fighters, fire fighting equipment, and the New York Fire Department in the 17th through 19th centuries.
The great 19th century New York City Clerk David Valentine’s Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York (1842–1866 & 1868–1870) provide statistics and accounts of fires in New York.
The Union History Company’s long out-of-print History of Architecture and the Building Trades of Greater New York (1899) has a chapter on fireproof construction that incidentally provides an overview of the history of fires in the city.