June 16, 2001

When fire broke out in lower Manhattan on January 24, 1821, the sudden heat was almost welcome. Three days previously the lower Hudson River, known locally as the North, had frozen over and now the ice had begun to thicken. Snow lay so deeply in the streets that the chief commissioner of the Fire Department had temporarily consolidated two area companies into one, to facilitate movement of the hand-pulled fire wagons. Sources of unfrozen water were especially scarce now. Under these conditions, compounded by wooden building construction, it seems somewhat miraculous that the flames were confined to the block bounded by Front, Fulton and South Streets, where the seaport museum stands today. The following day temperatures dropped to 14 degrees below zero and New Yorkers began gingerly walking out on the ice, then crossing to Jersey City, Brooklyn and Governor's Island, as they grew bolder. The harbor iced over and the next day daring souls were crossing from Brooklyn to Staten Island.

Real estate prices in the area continued to increase, with 12 lots in nearby Liberty and Greenwich streets going for close to $48,000. Rising young political aspirant Philip Hone, a future mayor, bought a home at 235 Broadway for $25,000. He would sell it 15 years later for $60,000. And vacant land didn't remain vacant for long. As soon the fire's debris had been cleared, new construction began on Fulton Street for a market to replace a smaller one down on Maiden Lane. The immediate area would soon take on a distinctly fishy bouquet that would linger for the next 18 decades.

Building crews had been busy all over the city for the past several years and 1821 would see the completion of a number of projects. A group of merchants, seeking to improve the education of their employees, opened the Mercantile Library in February. Soon 150 subscribers were working their way through a 700-volume collection. After May 7th, if all that studying overtaxed your brain you could get away from it all and check in the new Bloomingdale Insane Asylum up in the country near the village of Harlem. It was the state's first mental hospital. For those requiring less drastic measures, a number of churches were also completed this year, including St. Luke's in the Fields and three Presbyterian churches.

By autumn New York was on its way to becoming a theatre town. A brand new Park Theatre opened on the first of September, with a stage measuring 45 by 70 feet and a seating capacity of 2400. The distinguished English Shakespearian actor Junius Brutus Booth, arrived in America a few months previously at Norfolk, Virginia, was drawn northward and opened on October 5th in Richard III. He soon returned to England, but was back in 1824 and soon became a favorite with Manhattan audiences. Acting was still not accepted as a quite respectable profession, but Booth and his sons Edwin, and John would go a long way toward changing that. There was other Shakespeare available, performed by a rather unusual company for a year when the state had just declared slavery illegal. Promoter William A. Brown founded the African Theatre off lower Broadway this year, creating a repertory company of black actors performing a season of pantomimes, musicals and Shakespeare, including Richard III and, of course, Othello. New York had its first Negro Theater.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor




Where's the fire? From Alabama USA to Manchester, England, from hand pumpers to today's lime-green trucks, from fire horses to dalmations, just about anything you ever wanted to know about fire departments can be found at the Fire Museum Network Links page


There are links to many firefighting museums across the US, as well as a some in Europe, Japan and Tasmania. In addition you'll find links on General Firefighting History, Firehose Jim (and other links and information about fire horses, the Silsby Steamer Site, Women in Firefighting, Chicago Historical Society's "Web of Fire", The MGM Grand Hotel Fire - 20 Years Later, and "Didja' Ever Want To Be a FIREMAN?" - children and the American fire service.


©2001 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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