New York City in the 19th Century

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

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.

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. More »
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
Journalist Jacob Riis took a camera into some of the worst slums of New York City in the 1890s. This gallery of images features some of his most dramatic photographs of the hard lives faced by immigrants in lower Manhattan tenement neighborhoods. More »
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. More »

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. More »

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 of "Gotham" for New York City originated with Washington Irving. More »

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. More »

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Frederick Law Olmsted, Designer of Central Park

Photographic portrait of Frederick Law Olmsted
Frederick Law Olmsted. Getty Images

One of the amazing things about New York in the 19th century is that the city put aside a vast tract of land for a park. What became known as Central Park was largely designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who had been a writer before pursuing his career as a landscape designer.

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." More »

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." More »

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. More »

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. More »

Photograph of William M.
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. More »

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Vintage Images of the New York Draft Riots

In July 1863, at the height of the Civil War, the conflict suddenly seemed to arrive on the streets of New York City. A new draft to conscript soldiers for the war outraged the lower classes of the city, who felt they were being unfairly targeted.

Photographic portrait of showman Phineas T. Barnum
Phineas T. Barnum. Getty Images

In the mid-1800s no trip to New York City was complete without a visit to Barnum's Museum, a huge building housing an amazing collection of "curiosities." You might watch a performance by General Tom Thumb, or see exotic animals brought back from the ends of the earth. More »

A vicious cyclone struck New York City by surprise in September 1821, sinking ships, destroying chunks of the waterfront, and ripping slate tiles from rooftops. The study of the great storm revealed peculiar characteristics that led to modern hurricane science. More »