When the Newhall House opened in 1857, it was a point of local pride. When it burned in 1883, it was a tragedy of historic proportions.
The Newhall House hotel was among the finest hostelries east of New York when it opened in Milwaukee in 1857. Located at the corner of what is today Broadway and East Michigan Street, the house had 300 rooms and towered at six stories high, making it among the tallest buildings in the nation.
But the luxury of the house was a bit much for Milwaukee and it quickly proved to be a financial burden to all associated with it. Daniel Newhall, the grain trader who had built the place, sold it after just a few years, losing tens of thousands of dollars on the venture. By 1883, after numerous closing, re-openings, and modifications, the hotel was more like a relic of a bygone age than a first-class facility.
There were about 180 guests and employees in the house on the night of January 10, 1883, when a fire started at the base of the hotel’s elevator shaft. With the open-topped shaft acting as a flue in the cold winter air, the fire spread with an alarming speed, overwhelming the overnight staff who tried to put it out. The staff failed to call the fire department until nearly 15 minutes after discovering the flames and failed entirely to wake any of the slumbering guests. The result was a catastrophic blaze that leveled the hotel and claimed 75 lives – with many people leaping from their windows in desperation. The most horrible scene was the alleyway to the west of the building (an alleyway still in use today), where 12 of the house’s live-in domestics, mostly young immigrant women, leapt to their deaths from the fifth floor to avoid the agonizing roast of the flames.
In the aftermath of the fire, blame was heaped on the Newhall’s operators for providing insufficient defenses against fire and had no real plan for evacuating the house in the event of an emergency. Legal action against these men was not possible, however, as they did everything that the city and state required of them in regards to building safety. George Scheller, proprietor of the Newhall’s basement barroom, was charged criminally with setting the fire, but his innocence became so evident during the trial that his acquittal was celebrated throughout the city. No other person was ever charged with a crime in the matter and the origins of the fire were never determined. This page was recovered from the ruins of the fire, and noted with the approximate number of dead and the number of bodies pulled from the wreckage too badly burned to every identify.
Antique Milwaukee is a new Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.