Burning of Main Hall at University of Wisconsin – Madison, Wisconsin

UW Fire, 1916 - Burning of Main Hall at University of Wisconsin - Madison, Wisconsin

Wausau Daily Herald – October 10, 1916:

FIRE I AT THE UNIVERSITY
Entire Madison Fire Department Unable to Check Blaze Which Broke Out at 10: 15
HALL VALUED AT $202,000
Fifteen Hundred Students in Building No Loss of Life As They Escape Flames
LOSS NOT OVER $10,000.

Madison. October 10. Main hall at the university is in ruins. A smouldering fire was discovered under the dome at 10:13 a. m., and within an hour the massive dome had crumbled and fallen. The entire Madison fire department was on the ground.
Main hall is valued at $202,000. At 11:30 Fire Chief Heyl said the hall was practically ruined. The building is insured in the state fire Insurance fund for $184,000. The contents are valued at $36,000.
Fifteen hundred students were in the building when the fire was discovered. They got out in orderly fashion. There were no
mishaps, but there were many miraculous escapes.
As soon as the fire was discovered. one hundred students scaled the roof of the hall to fight the blaze. Fire lines were quickly thrown out and five thousand people were at the lire within twenty minutes. The original structure was built under an appropriation of $45,000 made by the legislature in 1857. Since then two wings have been added.
President Van Hise of the university said; “The fire apparently started in the literary society room or in the dome.’ The alarm was immediately turned in and the equipment here in the building was manned by the force of janitors augmented by students. We are particularly proud of the way the thousands of students in the building conducted themselves. There was no disorder of any kind and nothing resembling a panic. We had planned against such a calamity and had a routine fire drill that worked perfectly. I did not know how long It took them to get out. Last year when we tried it they got out in two minutes. As far as damage is concerned, of course, I am unable to say at the present time. 1 hope it will not be large. We are doing everything we can do.”

The fire was believed to have been caused by an errant cigarette.

S.S. Morro Castle Disaster

1954 Toops Scoop Card #63

The S.S. Morro Castle disaster is one of the strangest and most fascinating disasters in American history. On September 5, the Morro Castle departed Havana, Cuba, headed for New York. For two days there were no problems, but on the third day tragedy of multiple kinds befell the four-year-old luxury liner. The ship was met with high winds and stormy conditions in the Atlantic, making the sailing choppy. Later that night Captain Robert Wilmott had dinner delivered to his room. After the meal he complained of stomach trouble and was found dead shortly thereafter due to “acute indigestion” according to the ship’s doctor. 

The new captain was Chief Officer William Warms. Around 2:50 a.m. a fire was discovered in a sealed cabinet on the B Deck. The fire was too large to be put out by a fire extinguisher and the hose system had been disabled by Captain Wilmott a month earlier. The fire spread quickly, aided by the ship’s high rate of speed and the high winds at sea.  The ship and its contents were highly flammable. Ornate wooden furniture, cleaning fluid and lacquered wooden walls fueled the blaze. The badly under trained crew tried to put out the fire, but it was too large.  Fireproof doors on board could have snuffed out the blaze, but no one ever closed them. Captain Warms finally gave the order to send an SOS signal some 39 minutes after the blaze was discovered. The SOS was received by a station in Tuckerton, New Jersey who then alerted the Coast Guard in New York and any ship nearby. Why Warms waited so long remains a mystery.

Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey

 Both crew and officers began to panic. The ship contained more than enough lifeboats for everyone on board. The problem was that many boats were inaccessible due to the fire. The six lifeboats that did make it out were not filled. Only 85 people were aboard the boats that could hold over 400. Many of the 85 were crewmen, leaving many passengers to fend for themselves. No order was ever given to stop the Morro Castle. The flaming ship floated out of control up the New Jersey coast. Passengers began to jump in the Atlantic Ocean, taking their chances of surviving in the water instead of burning to death. 

S.S. Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey

The fire destroyed communication to the radio room. Soon after, the ship’s engine died. The blazing ship was unable to be controlled and was being moved around by the wind. The anchor was dropped and more passengers and crew evacuated the flaming wreckage.
Rescue ships had a difficult time coming to the ship’s aid. The stormy seas made sailing difficult. 

People along the coastline began calling local police and fire departments reporting of a flaming ship just off the coastline. Local ships from nearby Asbury Park began to arrive on the scene only to discover the horror. Bodies, some drown, some mangled by the ship’s propeller, others with their necks broken from jumping floated in the water. Anyone who was still alive was rescued and brought back to shore.

Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey


By mid-afternoon the Morro Castle had been abandoned, left to burn. The anchor was cut and a coast guard cutter named the Tampa, attempted to tow the ship to New York, but the towline snapped. The winds pushed the husk of a ship to the shoreline at Asbury Park, New Jersey near the convention hall. The burned-out husk of the ship would remained grounded there, attracting tourists by thousands, for six months before it was moved for good. A total of 137 people died in the disaster and questions lingered as to what truly happened on the Morro Castle that September night/morning.

Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey

Investigations began right away. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover appointed Special Agent Francis X. Fay to lead the FBI’s inquiry. Congress, the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York, Asbury Park Police and the Commerce department conducted simultaneous investigations. They all determined that there was lots of blame to go around from the poorly trained staff to the ship’s flammable contents. Captain Warms, the ship’s chief engineer and the ship company’s vice-president were all indicted and convicted of negligence. The convictions were later overturned.

Investigators also found that crew members were miserable. Captain Willmott had become increasingly paranoid of saboteurs conspiring to start a mutiny. Poor working conditions on board lead to further dissatisfaction but that was not cause of the fire. In fact, none of inquiries ever answered the question of how the fire started and who or what caused the sealed closet to erupt in flames.

Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey

George Alagna, the Assistant Radio Operator, was the prime suspect. Chief Radio Engineer George W. Rogers testified that he found suspicious chemicals in his assistant’s locker. Rogers further testified that Captain Wilmott had become afraid of Alagna organizing a mutiny. Alagna was arrested, but was ultimately cleared due to lack of evidence.

Long after the disaster, conspiracy theories began to surface regarding Rogers.  Some believe he poisoned Captain Wilmott and started the fire. None of that could ever be proven. What is known is after the fire Rogers was hailed as a hero. He told anyone who listened that he stayed aboard the ship, aiding passengers to safety. Rogers’ heroics were even brought to Broadway where sold-out crowds went to the Rialto Theatre to hear the tales of his bravery.  It was soon discovered that the man, called strange and unsettling by crew members, had a shady past.
At 15 years old he raped a younger boy at his school. He poisoned his wife’s dog when she attended a funeral against Rogers’ wishes. Before joining the Morro Castle, he had been fired from a job at a New York electric company for theft of equipment and was also under suspicion for starting a fire at his workplace. Soon after his star dimmed, Rogers owned and operated a struggling radio shop in Bayonne, New Jersey that burned down mysteriously.

Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey

He then joined the Bayonne Police Department as a radio assistant. Rogers’ boorish behavior and insistence on wearing the same pants every day made him rather unlikable. He did find a friend in his commanding officer Lt. Vincent Doyle. The two had similar interests. Both considered themselves inventors who enjoyed tinkering with equipment of all kinds. Other officers would often bring faulty equipment to them to see if they could fix it. In March 1938, Doyle was working on a faulty fish tank that exploded when he plugged it in. Rogers had been in the room but stepped out mere minutes before the explosion. Doyle was badly hurt, his left hand mangled so horribly that he was only left with two fingers. An investigation and subsequent trial brought to life that Rogers’ had told Doyle of what “might have” caused the fire aboard the Morro Castle. He is said to have told Doyle that maybe “someone had inserted a fountain pen into the breast pocket of a waiter’s uniform in the writing room closet. This particular fountain pen had two compartments inside separated by a thin copper divider. One side had been filled with a specific acid, the other with a chemical powder that would burn violently if it were to come into direct contact with the acid. Once the acid was added it would gradually eat through the copper separator, acting as a crude sort of delay timer.”

Rogers also is said to have bragged to people that he was going to lieutenant soon. Rogers was found guilty of attempted murder and sentenced to 12-20 years. He would only serve three years as he was released from prison to fight in WWII. The problem is that the armed services did not want the overweight felon. In 1954, Rogers was convicted of murdering his neighbor and neighbor’s daughter with a sledge hammer. Rogers died in prison on January 10, 1958.It is impossible to know if George Rogers was responsible for starting the Morro Castle fire or for the death of Captain Willmott. Rogers definitely had the opportunity and a murderous inclination, but a motive remains unclear.  The actual cause of the blaze has been lost to time.

Morro Castle Disaster - Asbury Park, New Jersey

The Great Chatsworth Train Wreck – August 10-11, 1887 – Chatsworth, Illinois

Wreck of Niagara Excursion - Chatwsworth, Illinois

Just outside of Chatsworth, Illinois on U.S. 24 lies a historical marker that reads:

The Chatsworth Wreck – Midnight, August 10–11, 1887 – One half mile north on the Toledo, Peoria & Western Railroad
occurred one of the worst wrecks in American rail history. An excursion train – two engines and approximately twenty wooden coaches – from Peoria to Niagara Falls, struck a burning culvert. Of the 500 passengers about 85 perished and scores were injured.

Summer 1887 had been extremely hot and dry throughout the Midwest. Central Illinois had been particularly bone dry, with no rain for weeks. On August 10, a control burn was ordered to stop the potential for a larger fire from passing trains. The fire was not more than likely not completely extinguished leaving it to burn a small bridge that spanned the creek. The bridge was scorched making it far too weak to support any significant weight. Unfortunately for the crew and 700 passengers heading eastbound that day aboard the Toledo, Peoria & Western on a Niagara Falls excursion, there were unaware the burnt trestle would lead to disaster.

The excursion line was very popular amongst middle-class, white travelers from the Midwest. For only $7.50, a vacationer could take a round-trip ticket from Illinois to the majestic splendor of Niagara Falls. The popularity of the trip caused the train to be especially long with 20 passenger cars, which required two locomotives.

Much of what happened next is shrouded in mystery. Some reports say that the train’s engineer saw the damaged bridge, but was unable to stop in time. Other reports cite a downward slope and high rate of speed combined with the damaged bridge causing the disaster. Either way, the first engine crossed safely over the burnt bridge with no trouble, but the second engine rolled, causing it to separate from the first engine and fly into the ditch.

Immediately the wooden passenger cars followed. Each one crashing first into the second engine then, smashing and slicing into the one before it. Eleven of the 20 passenger cars careened into the ditch. the only ones remaining on the track were the more opulent and heavier Pullman sleeper cars.

Harper’s Weekyl sketch of the accident

Either 81 or 85 passengers died in the wreck. As was word of the accident spread, hundreds of gawkers and onlookers descended upon Chatsworth to see the wreckage. Many of the visitors took souvenirs from the wreckage leading to erroneous and fictionalized accounts that the accident was staged to rob the dead. The August 12th, 1887 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was particularly susceptible to this rumor:

LATEST EDITION
DIABOLICAL!
Train Robbers Cause the Chatsworth Disaster.
Sensational Developments in the Railroad Horror.
More Bodies Believed to Be in the Wreck. Inquest on the Unfortunate Victims Now in Progress.
Seventy-Six Dead on the Coroner’s Official List.
The Temporary Morgues and Hospitals at Chatsworth Full.
Caring for the injured – An Official Investigation Begun by the State Board of Railroad Commissioners – A Foul and Sickening Stench at the Wreck – Indications That the Train Was Wrecked for the Purpose of Robbery – A Gang of Thieves Lurking Around the Scene of the Disaster Before and After the Accident The Dead and “Wounded Bobbed Clearing the Wreck Responsibility of the Railroad Company Preparing the Dead for Burial – Lists of the Dead and Injured.

The cause of the accident was a lack of care and transparency on the part of the railroad officials. Had they communicated the damage to the bridge, or even had a smaller train test the strength of the burned out trestle, then the eighty-plus human lives would have been spared.

Sunday, August 14th, four days after the accident the railroad company had gathered most of the debris, possibly including bodies, into an enormous flaming ball of wood, metal and flesh destroying what was left the wreckage and any details to be learned from the accident.

Fire at Stern’s Residence – August 5, 1906

Fire at Stern's Residence - Middletown, New York

Taken from The Sun newspaper on August 6, 1906:

Middletown, N.Y, Aug, 5 – Fire this morning practically destroyed the residence of Lehman Stern, on Highland Avenue, the wealthiest section of the city. Adjoining were the houses of Edson G. Lavidge and Mrs. James Morton, formerly of New York. Each of these residences is valued at over $100,000, and they were only saved from destruction by the fact that there was practically no wind blowing. The Stern residence was in course of construction and was valued at $50,000. The house would have been ready for occupancy in three weeks time. There is only $20,000 insurance. Mr. Stern says that he will sue the city for damages resulting from lack of fire protection.

The Great Bellows Falls Fire – Bellows Falls, Vermont – March 26, 1912

Vermont Phoenix, 29 Mar 1912, Fri, Page 12

Vermont Phoenix, 29 Mar 1912, Fri,  Page 12

WHAT: City/Building Fire
WHEN: March 26, 1912
WHERE: Bellows Falls, Vermont
FATALITIES: Zero dead – three building and numerous businesses were destroyed

VT, Bellows

What proved to be the most disastrous fire as far as loss of property was concerned, that ever visited Bellows Falls, broke out Tuesday morning at 2 o’clock, and before It was extinguished, a loss of probably $150,000 to $200,000 was caused in three of the best business buildings in the village.

VT, Bellowss

Report From the Vermont Phoenix, 29 Mar 1912:

The fire started in Union hall. This building and the other two which were burned are located on the east side of the square. The fire department were on hand early, but the thermometer being about 10 degrees below zero, they met with several hindrances in getting water. The fire started in the large hall and the entire Interior was a seething mass of flames before the water reached it. From this point It spread both, ways, passing over the top of the firewalls both north and south, On the north was the “Arms block” erected by the late Otis Arms about 1886, a three story, brick building. On the south was the valuable four story Hotel Windham building. Union building, in which the fire started, was practically destroyed, although If rebuilt In the same Shape as before, some portion of the north part might be utilized. The upper stories of both the Arms building and Hotel Windham were destroyed, and many thousand tons of water was poured down through both buildings.
The progress of the fire had been stopped about 5 o’clock, and danger of its further spread was delayed, but the department continued to play five or six streams upon the ruins until late In the afternoon.

The firms burned out, beginning at the north end are as follows: Webster & Co. photographic gallery In the third story of the Arms building lost everything. In the second story, the occupants, C. L. Fletcher, tailors; H. C. Elliott, Insurance; and Dr. J. S. Hill, were badly damaged by water, as were the mercantile firms of Mason Brothers, pianos; J. B, Bronson, sewing machines; M. L. Holmes & Co.. ladles’ furnishings, and In the basement the Truax Printing company and the B & P express office. In Union building, Bodine & Co., plumbing; and Fuller’s drug store were not reached by the fire, but the stocks were seriously damaged, while the dry goods stores of D. F. Pollard and J. C. Day & Co.. and the boot and shoe store of Hatch & Bellows were entirely destroyed, and the debris lies In the basement. every floor of that section of the building having gone down, in me second story, besides Union hall, which was used as a public hall and as a drill hall for Company E, were the dental offices of Dr. O. M. George and the law office of A, I. Bolles. and a number of rooms in the rear which were occupied for storage. The third story of Union building, aside from the part In which union nan ex tended, was used for armory purposes by Company E. V. N. G. From the second and third stories of this building, nothing was removed. The floor of the third story Ml to the second, but not below. The fire communicated over the wall to the roof of Hotel Windham, which was one-story higher than Union building and extended the whole length of Hotel Windham and destroyed the roof and fourth floor. The furnishings of the fourth story were entirely destroyed while the stories below were damaged by a deluge of water poured over them. The hotel was full of guests, practically every room being occupied, but all escaped. The north store In this building was that of Hodgdon & Shaw, and the fire reached down Into that, and with the fire and smoke entirely destroyed the stork. The next store south, Richardson Brothers, was entirely flooded with water, but no effort was made to remove the stock. In the next store, the Jewelry store of Collins & Floyd, the entire stock was removed to the store of J. J. Fenton &Co., with a very slight loss, which was renumerated for liberally, because of the excellent care given, when the adjusters arrived yesterday. Next south was the dining room of Hotel Windham, and then the office and reading room on the corner, none of which were reached by the fire, but damage is principally by water.
The property was as a whole well covered by Insurance, and the adjusters are making good head way In settling with the claimants. Only the best and most hopeful feeling exists, there being many features in connection with It that will tend to the probable improvement of Bellows Falls In the end, although at the present It seems very disastrous. The origin is very mysterious.
The fire evidently started under the stage in Union Hall. Company E had occupied the hall the evening before until a late hour in drilling, some members staying until nearly midnight. It is possible it originated from a cigar stub or lighted match left to smoulder, but the actual fact will never be known.
The same ground covered by the buildings involved In this fire was burned over March 14, 1860, and a second time July 28, 1868. The buildings at both times were small wooden buildings and the loss was not serious, although large for those years. If we remember rightly., the white man’s burden wasn’t a load of money.
In the early morning on a freezing cold Tuesday morning, a fire of mysterious origin erupted underneath the stage in the large hall area of Union Hall and spread rapidly throughout the building. Within minutes flames jumped to adjacent buildings. The fire department arrived within minutes, but struggled to fight the flames in the 10 degree below zero weather.
The flames tore through several businesses before arriving at the Hotel Windham, where it destroyed the upper floors of the opulent hotel. There were no casualties but three buildings, numerous businesses and the hotel were damaged or totaled.

 

Gulf Hotel Fire – September 7, 1943

Fifty-five men, many of them elderly and living off government relief, died in the early morning of September 7, 1943 in the worst hotel fire in Houston, Texas history.

The Coshocton Tribune, 07 Sep 1943, Tue, Page 1

The Coshocton Tribune,  September 7. 1943

The fire started around 12:10 a.m. the front desk clerk was alerted to a problem on the second floor. A lit cigarette inadvertently caused a mattress to begin smoldering. Several guests of the hotel aided the clerk in extinguishing the small fire. The mattress, thought to be completely fine, was moved to a closet in a hallway on the second floor. Minutes later the mattress burst in flames and the fire spread quickly throughout the second floor and moved its way toward the third.

The old hotel only had two emergency exits, both on one side of the building and the flames blocked one of those exits and an interior stairwell became engulfed leaving many of the 133 guests trapped.

The fire department was located near the hotel and received the alarm at 12:50am. By the time they arrived on the scene the building was engulfed in flames. The fire tore through the old building quickly and burned so hot that the fire department could not place ladders against the building to help people escape.

gulf-hotel-fire1943-1

The aged men struggled to get out of the building. Many we able to slowly escape from the one working escape, but for many the situation became dire. Unable to leave through an exit many resorted to extreme measures. Two men jumped out the window, one man was killed trying to climb down the building by a burning window falling on him and many just stayed in their room and hope the flames would not reach them.

By the time the fire was extinguished, fifty-five men were dead. 38 men were burned to death, 15 died of smoke inhalation and the two men who jumped to their death.

The Gulf Hotel is a common story – an old building, not up to code, holding too many people without proper exits and no sprinkler system. Many of the lessons that could have been learned by the conflagration were ignored or completely forgotten. The Gulf Hotel fire was the biggest fire of 1943 (Cocoanut Grove) or even the biggest story in the newspapers that day. World War II raged on and a train wreck in Pennsylvania killed 79 people and injured 117.

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The St. Louis Star and Times,  07 Sep 1943

 

The Terminal Hotel Fire – Atlanta, Georgia

WHAT: Hotel fire
WHEN: May 16, 1938 around 3:00am
WHERE: Atlanta, Georgia
FATALITIES: 35 dead, as many as 15 injured

The Evening News – May 16, 1938

On May 16, 1938 the most disastrous fire in Atlanta’s history at time based on the loss of life, broke out in the kitchen of the Terminal Hotel. Located in the Hotel Row District in Atlanta at the corner of Spring and Mitchell Streets, the hotel mainly catered to travelers arriving and departing from the Terminal Station right across the street.

The original Terminal Hotel was built by Samuel Inman in 1906. That hotel burned to the ground in the Terminal District fire that swept through the neighborhood in 1908. A new five story structure  was re-built on that site. The new Terminal Hotel was something of a fire magnet, if such a term exists, as there had been three fires in the hotel in the 30 years it was open. The other fires were fairly minor compared to the destruction and death caused by this one.

At around 3:00 a.m. on May 16th, fire was discovered in the basement of the hotel and the alarm bell was sounded. Longtime bellhop Charlie Labon, was in the doing his early morning/late night duties in the lobby when the blaze started. Labon said he heard a boy in the kitchen scream: “Oh lawdy, fire” and then heard a muffled blast below and saw a puff of flames travel upward very quickly.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch – May 16, 1938

Ben Berry, the desk clerk at the Terminal attempted to  warn they guests of the fire, but the blaze had destroyed all connections. It may have been too late already. The venerable old hotel had a wooden interior and the flames tore through the place at a rapid pace blocking off fire escapes and stairs on the upper floor within minutes. Guests, sound a sleep at 3:00 am were awakened by the smoke and flames of the conflagration tearing through the building.

Firemen arrived shortly after the alarm bell sounded and they were met by an inferno. The fire department diverted local traffic due to the fear that the blaze would cause the hotel’s walls to collapse in all directions. The firefighters tried to stop the blaze with all the hoses they could muster, but the blaze was too strong. After a short time the interior and the roof collapsed.

Albany Democrat Herald – May 27, 1938

Some people smelled smoke and were able to escape quickly. Others were not so lucky. Several people were killed attempting to escape the flames by jumping out of their windows on to the street below. An entire family of four, including 2 young children were found in their room having succumbed to smoke inhalation. One victim was found dead on a second floor ledge of the hotel court, where he had attempted to jump to safety.

 

The rescue of Mrs. Guy Coleman – AP Photo

 

Many of the victims were burned to death and others suffocated. Many of the bodies were horribly mangled in the collapse of floors and steel work. Amazingly, after the fire had burned itself out Mrs. Guy Coleman, was found alive in a semi-conscious state in her second-story room. She was found under her bed in the only portion of the room left after the collapse.

Hotel manager G.P. Jones and his wife survived the flames by breaking a window. The firemen saw the window break and rushed to his room and rescued the both of them.

It was initially reported that 25 people died as a result of the disaster, but that number would rise. Over the next few days ten more bodies were discovered underneath the rubble of the collapsed sections.

The hotel had only between 60 and 75 guests staying there that night otherwise the loss of life would have been much worse. The hotel 65 rooms and many were unoccupied. Many of the guests that night were railroad workers in town for only a short while.

Atlanta Mayor Will B. Hartsfield stated that the hotel was constructed in a manor no longer permitted under the building codes of the day. However, the hotel was allowed to operate due to being grandfathered in.

The cause of the fire was never officially determined but it believed to caused by a electrical spark from a ventilating fan in a grease vent in the basement kitchen. The wooden interior mixed with warm, high winds cause the rapidity of the flames.

The fire was the first major hotel fire disaster since the December 11, 1934 fire at the Kerns Hotel in Lansing, Michigan that killed 32 but it would not be the last. In fact, eight years later Atlanta would be the site of the biggest loss of life hotel fire in history when a disaster at the Winecoff Hotel would kill 119 people.

The hotel was rebuilt later that year. It was torn down quite a while ago with no evidence of the horrors that took place on the May morning in 1938.

The Burning of the Iroquois Hotel – Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan

CITY IN RUINS

WHAT: Hotel Fire
WHEN: March 12, 1907
WHERE: Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan
CASUALTIES: Zero. The hotel was totally destroyed

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While not a fire that resulted in any loss of life, the Iroquois Hotel fire of 1907 is fascinating to me. The postcard above was mailed the very same day that the hotel burned to the ground.

This 1905 Detroit Publishing Company postcard was one of the catalysts for starting the City in Ruins project. The message is simple but gives the date and mentions the fact that the hotel burned that morning.

The postcard was mailed from Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan  to Miss Nina Jenks, Chicago, Illinois on March 12, 1907:

Dear Nina,
This hotel burnt to the ground this morning.
Corrine Armstrong

As mentioned in the article posted, this was the second fire at that exact site. Nine years earlier a hotel at that site was destroyed and G.D. Welton, the manager, narrowly escaped with his life.

The new hotel, dubbed the Iroquois was erected at a cost of $60,000 with $40,000 in furnishings.

The fire in the Iroquois started in a sample room; caused by a coal explosion in a fireplace. The flames burned for five hours and destroyed a residence next door.

All twenty-five guests escaped the building quickly, leaving all their possessions behind. Luckily, it was the off-season and the hotel was not full or the damage and danger would have increased exponentially.

The firemen putting out the blaze were unable to fight the flames as both the water main and the hydrants were frozen solid. They had to basically wait for the fire to die down in its own and spray it with what little water they had available.

There were no injuries or casualties but the loss was total. I don’t believe another hotel was built on that site.

 

 

 

 

I was able to find a 1907 insurance claim after the conflagration. These were the final results.

 

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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.

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.