Today, the New York State Quarter Coin remembers one of the Great Fires in the city on September 21, 1776.
From The Story of the Volunteer Fire Department of the City of New York by George William Sheldon, published in 1882:
Sept. 21, 1776.–Five days after the occupation of the city by Lord Howe and the British forces, a fire broke out in a tavern in Whitehall Slip, known as the “Fighting Cocks,” from which it spread until several hundred houses were consumed, the area of the conflagration being at least a quarter of the city’s extent at that time.
The fire burned up Broadway on both sides until it was arrested on the east side by Mr. Harrison’s brick-house; on the west side it destroyed all the buildings as far up as St. Paul’s Church.
The wind having changed to the south-east, the fire continued its progress toward the North River, until it reached the vicinity of the present Washington Market.
Among the buildings destroyed were Trinity Church and two other churches. St. Paul’s Church and King’s College were ignited several times, but owing to the exertions of the firemen and citizens were saved.**
Captain Joseph Henry, afterward a judge in Pennsylvania, has given, in his “Campaign against Quebeck,” a notably vivid description of “the great fire of 1776.”
He had just returned from Quebec, and was standing on a ship in the bay when the fire broke out. The captain writes:
“A most luminous and beautiful but baleful sight occurred to us, that is, the City of New York on fire.
“One night (September 21) the watch on deck gave a loud notice of this disaster.
“Running upon deck, we could perceive a light which, at the distance we were from it (four miles), was apparently of the size of the flame of a candle.
“This light, to me, appeared to be the burning of an old and noted tavern called the ‘Fighting Cocks’ (where ere this I had lodged), to the east of the Battery, and near the wharf.
“The wind was southwardly, and blew a fresh gale; the flames at this place, because of the wind, increased rapidly.
“In a moment we saw another light at a great distance from the first up the North River. The latter seemed to be an original, distinct, and new formed fire, near a celebrated tavern in the Broadway called ‘Whitehall.’
“Our anxiety for the fate of so fine a city caused much solicitude, as we harbored suspicions that the enemy had fired it.
“The flames were fanned by the briskness of the breeze, and drove the destructive effects of the element on all sides.
“When the fire reached the spire of a large steeple, south of the tavern, which was attached to a large church [Trinity Church], the effect upon the eye was astonishingly grand.
“If we could have divested ourselves of the knowledge that it was the property of our fellow-citizens which was consuming, the view might have been esteemed sublime, if not pleasing.
“The deck of our ship, for many hours, was lighted as at noonday. In the commencement of the conflagration we observed many boats putting off from the fleet, rowing speedily toward the city; our boat was of the number.
“This circumstance repelled the idea that our enemies were the incendiaries, for, indeed, they professedly went in aid of the inhabitants.
“The boat returned about daylight, and from the relation of the officer and the crew we clearly discerned that the burning of New York was the act of some mad cap Americans.
“The sailors told us, in their blunt manner, that they had seen one American hanging by the heels dead, having a bayonet wound through his breast. They named him by his Christian and surname, which they saw imprinted on his arm; they averred he was caught in the act of firing the houses.
“They told us, also, that they had seen one person, who was taken in the act, tossed into the fire, and that several who were stealing, and suspected as incendiaries, were bayonetted.
“Summary justice is at no time laudable, but in this instance it may have been correct. If the Greeks could have been resisted at Persepolis, every soul of them ought to have been massacred.
“The testimony we received from the sailors, my own view of the distant beginnings of the fire in various spots, remote from each other, and the manner of its spreading, impressed my mind with the belief that the burning of the city was the doing of the most low and vile persons, for the purposes not only of thieving but of devastation.
“This seemed, too, the general sense, not only of the British, but that of the prisoners then aboard the transports.
“Laying directly south of the city, and in a range with Broadway, we had a fair and full view of the whole process. The persons in the ships nearer to the town than we were uniformly held the same opinion.
“It was not until some years afterward that a doubt was created; but, for the honor of our country and its good name, an ascription was made of the firing of the city to accidental circumstances.
“It may be well that a nation, in the heat and turbulence of war, should endeavor to promote its interests by the propagating reports of its own innocency and prowess, and accusing its enemy of flagrant enormity and dastardliness (as was done in this particular case), but when peace comes let us, in God’s name, do justice to them and ourselves.
“Baseness and villany are the growth of all climes and of all nations. Without the most numerous and the most cogent testimony, as the fact occurred within my own view, the eloquence of Cicero could not convince me that the firing was accidental.”
** “Mr. David Grim, a merchant of New York, who saw the conflagration, has left a record of the event. He says the fire broke out in a low groggery and brothel, a wooden building, on the wharf, near Whitehall Slip.
“It was discovered between one and two o’clock in the morning of the 21st of September. The wind was from the south-west.
“There were but few inhabitants in the city, and the flames, for a while unchecked, spread rapidly. All the houses between Whitehall and Broad Streets, up to Beaver Street, were consumed, when the wind veered to the southeast and drove the fire toward Broadway.
“It consumed all on each side of Beaver Street to the Bowling Green, a little above which it crossed Broadway, and swept all the buildings on both sides, as far as Exchange Street.
“On the west side it consumed almost every building from Morris Street to Partition (Fulton) Street, devouring Trinity Church in its way, and destroyed all the buildings toward the North River. For a long time the new (St. Paul’s) church was in peril, for the fire crept in its rear to Mortkile (Barclay) Street, and extended west of King’s (Columbia) College to Murray Street.
“The exact number of buildings consumed was four hundred and ninety three. The city then contained about four thousand houses. ‘The ruins,’ says Dunlap (who wandered over the scene at the close of the war), ‘on the south-east side of the town were converted into dwelling places by using the chimneys and parts of walls which were firm, and adding pieces of spars with old canvas from the ships, forming hovels—part hut and part tent.’
“This was called Canvas Town, and there the vilest of the army and Tory refugees congregated.
“The Tories and British writers of the day attempted to fix the crime of incendiarism upon the Whigs, but could not. It is well known that the fire had an accidental origin, yet British historians continue to reproduce the libel.”—Lossing’s Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution.
The New York State Quarter Coin shows with artist’s images of Trinity Church before and after the Great Fire of September 21, 1776.