Yesterday’s Milwaukee

Newhall House, 1883, After the Fire

The fire killed 71 people but circus star Tom Thumb survived. The catastrophe became a sobering lesson for the city.

By - Aug 5th, 2014 08:46 am
Only a few walls remain of the Newhall House. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

After the fire, only a few walls remain from the Newhall House hotel. Photo courtesy of Jeff Beutner.

The Newhall House, which opened in 1857, would get updated over the next year, with the addition of such modern conveniences as an elevator and later telephones. But the hotel with its imposing brick exterior had a structure of wood inside. Add gas lighting fixtures and you have a building prone to fire. Blazes would occur in 1863 and 1880. But the hotel would last until January 10, 1883 when a massive conflagration would engulf the building.

Some 300 people were inside the Newhall House at the time, including Tom Thumb, of great circus fame at the time, along with his wife. Mr. and Mrs. Thumb would survive but 71 people ultimately perished in the blaze.

This photograph was taken shortly after by Hugo Broich. Everything still is a bit smoky and only a few walls remain. The adjacent buildings were spared including the photography studio of William Sherman, just to the north, and the Bank of Milwaukee building which is the building to the left. This elegant building, constructed around the same time as the Newhall House, still survives, one of this city’s finest early landmarks.

Note the poles used for telegraph and telephone lines. The wires would greatly impact the firefighter’s valiant attempts to rescue the fire victims, making the task more difficult. Milwaukee would learn from this lesson which is the reason why all Downtown power and telephone lines are buried. The Newhall House fire became a lesson of sorts to a still-developing city, as the upstart Milwaukee Journal did many stories about the owners’ lax attitude toward building safety.

The site of the hotel would not remain empty for long. It would be replaced by another landmark building to be featured in our column for next week.

Jeff Beutner is a collector of photographs, postcards and stereoviews of old Milwaukee. This column features these images, with historical commentary by Beutner.

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