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By 1835, New York City was the premier American city and its financial prowess surpassed that of Philadelphia or Boston. The opening of the Erie Canal ten years earlier connected New York to raw materials and commercial interests in the Midwest and allowed the city to rise to prominence as both a national and international market hub. Over half of the country’s exports left through New York harbor while more than a third of American imports arrived there. Insurance companies, investment firms, real estate companies and others made New York their home. Railroad terminals were rapidly built within the city to facilitate commerce. As the city expanded northward and its economic significance increased, fire was once again a major concern. Insurance companies worried that a large fire could sap their resources; influential politicians and citizens feared the potentially disastrous impact of fire on the city’s prospects for continued growth. Moreover, the mayor and numerous common council members held stock in or were board members of many of the city’s fire insurance firms.

While city officials were personally and materially invested in protecting the city from fire and made efforts to build more watch towers and hire more watchmen, one serious impediment to fire fighting was becoming apparent: the lack of a reliable water source for the city. By 1835 many officials had begun to develop a long-term vision to solve the city’s water problem, but little actually had been accomplished. The city’s residents as well as its firefighters still had to rely on neighborhood wells, forty strategically placed fire cisterns, and an inadequate reservoir located at 13th Street and the Bowery. Cholera outbreaks in 1832 and 1834 hastened the city’s plans for building the Croton Reservoir, which would bring clean water from upstate Westchester County into the city.

In addition to an inadequate water supply, the fire department’s growth in the 1820s and 1830s had not kept pace with the growth of the city. The city’s population had swelled by an additional 145,000 in the past decade, but the department had only added about 300 more firemen. Firemen were as popular as ever but 1,500 firemen, 55 engines, 6 ladder companies and 5 hose carts could not protect the growing number of New Yorkers. Throughout the summer and fall of 1835, the department had been kept quite busy fighting numerous fires. In fact on December 14th, the entire fire department – 1500 strong – had spent the freezing, miserable evening fighting two large fires, which destroyed thirteen buildings and two shops. The city’s fire cisterns were nearly empty and its fire fighting force exhausted when disaster struck.