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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Newhall House Hotel Fire

This weekend marks the anniversary of one the state's great tragedies. At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of January 10, 1883, passersby saw flames shooting from one of Milwaukee's landmarks. Built by merchant Daniel Newhall in 1856, it had been one of the nation's most magnificent hotels when it was new. 25 years later, the Newhall House was still fashionable, though somewhat down at its heels. But the Milwaukee fire department considered it a tinderbox and were hardly surprised when the fire alarms sounded.

Horrifying Conflagration

"We saw the flames breaking through the roof as we left the station," recalled firefighter Sam McDowell. "By the time we reached the hotel, the building was like a flaming strawstack. Men and women could be seen at their windows, shouting for help, screaming in despair."

The fire broke out in the elevator shaft and consequently raced upward through the entire building before guests could escape. Ladders of some firefighters got caught in the new-fangled electric lines downtown, and never reached the building. Others could not stretch to the upper floors. Many guests, trapped by the inferno behind them, chose to leap to their deaths in the street below.

Heroic Rescues

One rescuer, Hemann Strauss, laid a ladder from an upper window across an alley to an adjacent rooftop, and made repeated trips over this makeshift bridge carrying unconscious servants overcome by smoke.The guests that night included P.T. Barnum circus stars General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, in a sixth floor room. A firefighter named O'Brien managed to get a ladder up to them and, holding the tiny couple under one arm and grasping the swaying ladder with the other, made his way cautiously down through the flames to safety.

At Least 76 Killed

Similar acts of heroic bravery saved many guests. The hotel register was destroyed, so it is not definitely known how many people were in the Newhall House that night. At least seventy-six bodies were pulled from the charred remains over the next several days and some estimated that up to 90 people had died. It remained the most deadly hotel fire in U.S. history for many decades.

Learn More

For more on Wisconsin disasters, consult our online Dictionary of Wisconsin History and "The Wisconsin Centennial Story of Disasters and Other Unfortunate Events."

:: Posted in Curiosities on January 8, 2014
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