An Incident Of The Great Fire Of 1835
( Originally Published 1921 )
Rogers & Co. had their counting room at 42 Exchange Place, directly opposite the Garden Street church of Dr. Mathews, and all were burned out together in the great fire of 1835. At the time that fire occurred there were few notes to be paid. Money was easy. It was in December. Business had been for years magnificent. Everybody engaged in commerce was making a fortune. Insurance stocks were deemed as good as gold. But that fiery night taught merchants a fearful lesson. At least thirty millions of property went off in smoke and ashes in a few hours. It was a bitter cold night. The counting house of Rogers & Co. had not been closed that night, when the alarm was given. The chief clerk was writing in the cash book. When the alarm sounded he went to the vault and de-posited the books. In that vault was what is called a "portfolio." It contained nearly one million dollars, or what represented that sum. There were bills of ex-change, notes or bills receivable of merchants for a vast sum. In another pigeon hole in the vault were policies of insurance for a quarter of a million, for at that time Rogers & Co. had large quantities of foreign merchandise stored in different warehouses.
The clerk smiled, for he thought how little a fire could injure Rogers & Co. in a pecuniary point of view. The bells were ringing, and the clerk stepped out into the keen cold to see where the fire was. It had then reached the west end of Exchange Street, a little crooked corner that elbowed around into Pearl Street. He watched the fire as it burned fiercer and fiercer. It spread so rapidly, that he began to think the Merchants' Exchange (then deemed fireproof) might catch. Bells ceased to ring, and were rung no more that night. Bell ringers were paralyzed—firemen were aghast—the water froze. About midnight, when the fire was most grand, there was comparative stillness, except its roar, It was an awful silence. The clerk determined to go uptown and find Mr. Sagory. As he passed along the silent streets he was surprised at the apparent indifference of people uptown to the burning city. The fact was that few people in the upper wards had the least idea that there was a fire downtown. The clerk did not find his employer, and hurried back just in time to enter the store of Rogers & Co. and secure the portfolio with its valuable contents. Then came the fiery deluge down Exchange Street, sweeping stores, churches and dwellings like chaff. It was near Broad Street. The church of Dr. Mathews, though surrounded by a graveyard, caught in twenty places, and was a mass of ruins inside of thirty minutes. Then more stores, and the sea of fire would move on, all ready to cross Broad Street, and then—God have mercy on the devoted city !—the fire would have swept up to Broadway and down to the North River. A building in Exchange Street, near Broad, and opposite to the Reformed church, was blown up, and the fire was stayed. Had it not been stopped, it would have in less than ten minutes more reached the stores of Stebbins, Brouwer & Co., 41 Broad Street. In these cellars were nearly 1,000 pipes and half-pipes of brandy belonging to Charles Squires. That brandy would have scattered the fire, or sent it across Broad Street.
It was a horrid sight next morning to witness the arrival of old merchants dowtown at about their usual hour. Their faces were pictures of consternation. But little did these merchants, when they witnessed their warehouses a pile of ruins, dream of the extent of the damage. As prudent merchants generally act, so had they. "I am fully insured," were words of each. Insured! Bah! Every fire insurance company was broken ten times over, and their capitals could not pay ten cents on the dollar. Mr. Sagory came down-town among others. He had not heard of the fire until he reached Wall Street, and soon after he found himself in front of the ruins where the store of Rogers & Co. had stood, when he had left it the night previous. The books of the house had been saved, and, what was of more consequence than all, that "portfolio" with its great value. He, too, relied upon fire insurance policies to make good his losses, and like hundreds of other merchants was doomed to grievous disappointment.
It was some days before merchants realized the extent of the fire calamity in 1835. It was not felt at once, nor for some months, but finally it came, and such a panic as followed, such failures, were never known before nor since. But bravely and manfully that house of Rogers & Co. stood up, engineered as it was by Mr. Sagory. Drafts for tobacco poured in from the South. They were accepted and paid at maturity. By and by the news came that the London tobacco house of Warwick & Claggett had failed, and, if so, Rogers & Co. had reason to expect at least half a million of dollars of bills to be returned, and on which they would have to pay 10 per cent. damage. But, no ; this did not happen. Mr. Rogers himself crossed from France to London and paid the drafts of his New York house as they became due. All this while Rogers & Co. had to sustain not only their own Southern house, but their Philadelphia connections.