The Newhall House Fire – Milwaukee, Wisconsin

WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: January 10, 1883
WHERE: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
FATALITIES: At least 74, maybe as many as 90

Chicago Daily Tribune – January 11, 1883

The Newhall House was built by a group led buy Daniel Newhall. It was opened to the public on August 26th, 1857. The building was made of Milwaukee Brick and occupied the corner Broadway and Michigan Streets in downtown Milwaukee.

The largest and finest hotel in the West had already narrowly escaped disaster. On February 14, 1863, a blaze broke out in a room occupied by a newly-married couple, and before it was extinguished nine apartments were lost.

Newhall House
The Newhall House as it looked in the late 1860s. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

On the morning of January 10, 1883 disaster struck. At around 4am fire was discovered and in less than 30 minutes the entire building was destroyed by fire. The fire started in the elevator shaft and spread very quickly through the wooden and brick building.

The Newhall House had long been considered a hazard by the Milwaukee Fire Department due to its poor management, construction, ventilation and lack of exits.

Unfortunately for those that perished, the were no laws/ordinances to force the Newhall to make the changes that may have spared lives.

Further Particulars of the Terrible Calamity

The scene on the morning of January 10th was pure chaos and pandemonium.

The Reno Evening Gazette from later that day describes the scene with colorful details common to newspapers at the time.

The burning of the Newhall House at Milwaukee this morning…is another terrible illustration of not providing efficient means of exit to public building. Over 60 human being were roasted alive in that death box, and many of the victims, too, in full view of the vast multitude standing in the street below, unable to succor the perishing mortals. The thought is too horrifying to realize. The reports received refer to the the building as a “death trap,” and it seems public attention had been called to the unsafe conditioning of the building in case hast exit should ever become necessary, still nothing was done to remedy the fault. Cannot some law be passed compelling the owners of public buildings to properly protect those who must visit them?

Note – The call for more exits and safety will become a common theme for fires/disasters featured on City in Ruins.

The fire spread with such fearful rapidity that it was not in the power of man to save the building, and it is a marvel that the skill and bravery of the firemen were able to confine that sea of flame within the blackened walls of the hotel.

The valuable buildings and the wealth of merchandise now in the block of that ill-fated house are indebted for their preservation to the well-directed and fearless work of the Fire Department. The Police were equally prompt in responding to the first call, and they braved every danger in the discharge of their duty.

The fire killed at least 74 and as many as 90. 48 victims remained unidentified.Several hundred people were hurt. The registry for the hotel was destroyed in the fire so the number varies on how many guests were in the hotel that night. Estimates put it at around 800.

The dead were memorialized with a monument in Forest Home Cemetery.

Image Courtesy of UW Milwaukee Digital Collections.

Some Guests Saved

General Tom Thumb, of P.T. Barnum circus fame, and his wife were guests of the Newhall House that fateful night. They were ultimately rescued from the sixth floor by a firefighter named O’Brien. O’Brien managed to get a fire ladder up to their floor and held the tiny couple under one arm while holding his swaying ladder with the other. Tom Thumb would pass away 6 months later. His death was not related to the fire. Approximately 12 to 15 other people were saved.

Reno Evening Gazette – January 10, 1883
Only a few walls remain of the Newhall House. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

Ruins of the Newhall House a few hours later – January 10, 1883. Note the telegraph poles.  Image courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The Inquest

On January 23rd. an inquest of the dead began in the Municipal Court of Milwaukee City Hall. Details were discussed in length and interviews were conducted with witnesses. Thirteen days after the trial began, the jury, consisting of: a builder, 2 contractors, a clergyman, a railroad employee, and a merchant came back with these findings:

  • The Newhall was set on fire by a person or persons unknown
  • There was only one night watchman at the time and he was unable to attend to his proper duties, as there should have been at least 2 or 3 watchmen
  • The watchman and the night clerk, obeying previous instructions by the proprietors, lost valuable time trying to put out the fire and neglects to wake up the patrons of the hotel
  • When they finally did try to awaken people the halls were filled with so much smoke that they decided to save themselves
  • The Newhall was devoid of proper exits. There were escape ladders on the northeast and southeast corners, and a bridge near the southwest corner leading across the alley, an inside servants’ stairway from the fifth story to the basement, and two large open stairways in the front corridors leading from the office floor to the sixth floor, with an open ladder to the roof. That was not nearly enough for a hotel that size.
  • The owners were incredibly negligent – knowing that fires had taken place in the hotel – by not having more exits.
  • The Fire Department did their duty as well as could be expected, but could have done much more had the ladder trucks been fully manned and equipped with the best extension ladders and the men well drilled to handle them.
  • Telegraph poles and wires caused serious obstruction to the Fire Department by preventing them from using their ladders in a speedy and efficient manner.

Special thanks to archive.org for digitizing “Burning of the Newhall house,” which provided those great details.

The Trial

A man named George Scheller was charged with setting the fire. The trial was held in April of 1883 and Schiller was acquitted on all charges. An editorial in Green Bay Weekly Gazette blamed Schiller’s charge on living “fast.”

Green Bay Weekly Gazette, April 21, 1883

No one was ever convicted of starting the Newhall House fire.

Detroit Free-Press, December 31, 1994

The Newhall fire started getting cities to realize that having low hanging telegraph wires was a danger and putting them underground may spare precious minutes in an incident such as this. It also would to help ease the blight of burgeoning downtowns.

The Detroit Free-Press ran a brief editorial on December 31, 1884 that called for their removal in the upcoming year.

Milwaukee and other major cities would removed those poles over the next few years.

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