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The Great Fire of New York 1776

Only six days after the British took New York from the Dutch in 1776, a raging fire broke out on the night of September 21, 1776. According to eyewitnesses, the fire started in Fighting Cocks Tavern, which was located at the bottom of what is present-day Whitehall Street. Dry weather and strong winds spread the fire east and west, destroying 10-25% of the city. Though the exact number of damaged buildings is unknown, it is speculated that between 400 and 1,000 of the city’s 4,000 buildings were destroyed. Among those burned was the original Trinity Church building on 109 Greenwich Street, which went up in flames within minutes.

Many believed that the fire was the work of politically-fueled arsonists, but it was unclear whether it was the work of passionate Patriots or radical Loyalists. Each side blamed the other, but it was the Patriots who were ultimately pinned with the crime. British soldiers claimed that their fire-fighting equipment was sabotaged and prevented them from putting out the fire. As a result, over 200 Patriots were arrested and many of the prime suspects were hanged.

Days prior to the event, General George Washington met with the Continental Congress to discuss a defence strategy against the anticipated British occupation. At the meeting, it is said that there was a suggestion that they burn the city to the ground in order to keep it out of British hands. Though Washington rejected this suggestion, it is believed that it may have inspired a group of Patriots to act independently and set fire to the city.

After the incident, the British set up their own fire department in order to prevent any similar events from happening. Despite their efforts, the city remained far behind in fire-fighting strategies for decades. Devastating fires continued to break out in the city throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, with the most notable being the Great New York City Fire of 1845 and the General Slocum Fire of 1904.

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