New York City in the 19th Century

Known as Gotham, New York Grew Into America's Biggest City

Lithograph of the first crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge
E.F. Farrington crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by wire in August 1876. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 19th century, New York City became America's largest city as well as a fascinating metropolis. Characters such as Washington Irving, Phineas T. Barnum, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and John Jacob Astor made their names in New York City. And despite blights on the city, such as the Five Points slum or the notorious 1863 Draft Riots, the city grew and prospered.

New York's Great Fire of 1835

Burning of the Merchants Exchange in the Great Fire of 1835
Scene of the Great Fire of 1835. courtesy New York Public Library

On a frigid December night in 1835 a fire broke out in a neighborhood of warehouses, and winter winds caused it to spread quickly. It destroyed a large chunk of the city and was only halted when U.S. Marines created a rubble wall by blowing up buildings along Wall Street.

Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Photograph of men on catwalk during Brooklyn Bridge construction.
The Brooklyn Bridge during its construction. Getty Images

The idea of spanning the East River seemed impossible, and the story of the Brooklyn Bridge's construction was full of obstacles and tragedies. It took nearly 14 years, but the impossible was accomplished and the bridge opened for traffic on May 24, 1883.

Teddy Roosevelt Shook Up the NYPD

Cartoon of Theodore Roosevelt reforming the New York Police
Theodore Roosevelt depicted as a policeman in a cartoon. His nightstick reads, "Roosevelt, Able Reformer". MPI/Getty Images

Future president Theodore Roosevelt left a comfortable federal post in Washington to return to New York City to take on an impossible job: cleaning up the New York Police Department. The city cops had a reputation for corruption, ineptitude, and laziness, and Roosevelt directed the full force of his personality to cleaning up the force. He wasn't always successful, and at times he almost ended his own political career, but he still made a legendary impact.

Crusading Journalist Jacob Riis

Photo by Jacob Riis of a woman holding a baby
Tenement dweller photographed by Jacob Riis. Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images

Jacob Riis was an experienced journalist who broke new ground by doing something innovative: He took a camera into some of the worst slums of New York City in the 1890s. His classic book How the Other Half Lives shocked many Americans when they saw how the poor, many of them recently arrived immigrants, lived in horrendous poverty.

Detective Thomas Byrnes

Photograph of New York Detective Thomas Byrnes
Detective Thomas Byrnes. public domain

In the late 1800s, the most famous cop in New York City was a tough Irish detective who said he could extract confessions by a clever method he called "the third degree." Detective Thomas Byrnes probably obtained more confessions from beating suspects than outwitting them, but his reputation became that of a clever sleuth. In time, questions about his personal finances pushed him out of his job, but not before he changed police work throughout America.

The Five Points

Illustration of the Five Pointes neighborhood in New York City.
The Five Points depicted circa 1829. Getty Images

The Five Points was a legendary slum in 19th century New York. It was known for gambling dens, violent saloons, and houses of prostitution.

The name The Five Points became synonymous with bad behavior. And when Charles Dickens made his first trip to America, New Yorkers took him to see the neighborhood. Even Dickens was shocked.

Washington Irving, America's First Great Writer

Engraved portrait of author Washington Irving
Washington Irving first achieved fame as a young satirist in New York City. Stock Montage/Getty Images

The writer Washington Irving was born in lower Manhattan in 1783 and would first achieve fame as the author of A History of New York, published in 1809. Irving's book was unusual, a combination of fantasy and fact that presented a glorified version of the city's early history.

Irving spent much of his adult life in Europe, but he is often associated with his native city. In fact, the nickname "Gotham" for New York City originated with Washington Irving.

Bomb Attack on Russell Sage

Engraved portrait of financier Russell Sage
Russell Sage, one of the wealthiest Americans of the late 1800s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1890s one of America's richest men, Russell Sage, kept an office near Wall Street. One day a mysterious visitor came into his office demanding money. The man detonated a powerful bomb he carried in a satchel, devastating the office. Sage somehow survived, and the story got more bizarre from there. The bomber, later identified as Henry L. Norcross of Boston was blown to pieces, but his head remained undamaged, and that's how his parents were able to identify him. Sage was sued by a clerk, William R. Laidlaw, who accused him of using him as a shield against the blast. Sage denied it, and eventually won in the courts.

John Jacob Astor, America's First Millionaire

Engraved portrait of John Jacob Astor
John Jacob Astor. Getty Images

John Jacob Astor arrived in New York City from Europe determined to make it in business. And in the early 19th century Astor had become the richest man in America, dominating the fur trade and buying up huge tracts of New York real estate.

For a time Astor was known as "New York's landlord," and John Jacob Astor and his heirs would have great influence on the growing city's future direction.

Horace Greeley, Editor of the New York Tribune

Engraved portrait of editor Horace Greeley
Horace Greeley. Stock Montage/Getty Images

One of the most influential New Yorkers, and Americans, of the 19th century was Horace Greeley, the brilliant and eccentric editor of the New York Tribune. Greeley's contributions to journalism are legendary, and his opinions held great influence among the nation's leaders as well as its common citizens. And he's remembered, of course, for the famous phrase, "Go west, young man, go west."

Cornelius Vanderbilt, The Commodore

Photograph of Cornelius Vanderbilt
Cornelius Vanderbilt, "The Commodore". Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Cornelius Vanderbilt was born on Staten Island in 1794 and as a teenager began working on small boats ferrying passengers and produce across New York Harbor. His dedication to his work became legendary, and he gradually acquired a fleet of steamboats and became known as "The Commodore."

Building the Erie Canal

The Erie Canal was not located in New York City, but as it connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, it made New York City the gateway to the interior of North America. After the canal's opening in 1825, New York City became the most important center for commerce on the continent, and New York became known as The Empire State.

Tammany Hall, the Classic Political Machine

Photograph of William M. "Boss" Tweed
Boss Tweed, the most notorious leader of Tammany Hall. Getty Images

Throughout most of the 1800s, New York City was dominated by a political machine known as Tammany Hall. From humble roots as a social club, Tammany became immensely powerful and was the hotbed of legendary corruption. Even the mayors of the city took direction from the leaders of Tammany Hall, which included the notorious William Marcy "Boss" Tweed.

While the Tweed Ring was eventually prosecuted, and Boss Tweed died in prison, the organization known as Tammany Hall was actually responsible for building much of New York City.

Archbishop John Hughes

Lithographic portrait of Archbishop John Hughes
Archbishop John Hughes. Library of Congress

Archbishop John Hughes was an Irish immigrant who entered the priesthood, working his way through the seminary by working as a gardener. He eventually was assigned to New York City and became a powerhouse in city politics, as he was, for a time, the undisputed leader of the city's growing Irish population. Even President Lincoln asked his advice.

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McNamara, Robert. "New York City in the 19th Century." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, July 31). New York City in the 19th Century. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "New York City in the 19th Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).