January 10, 1883: The Newhall House, one of the largest hotels in the state, burns to the ground in a dramatic fire that claimed over 80 lives. It remains one of the worst hotel fires in American history.
The conflagaration began in an elevator shaft and traveled quickly throughout the building. It was discovered, already out of control, around 4 a.m. The press described a “holocaust” where unfortunate guests roasted in the “death trap” — while the surrounding sidewalks of Michigan and Broadway were covered with the lifeless bodies of those who leapt out of hotel room windows. Said one onlooker, “The shrieks of the unfortunates filled the air in a heart-rending manner.”
The exact loss of life was never determined, as the guest register burned with the hotel. One survivor was General Tom Thumb, famous dwarf of the P.T Barnum Company, who escaped through the main entrance.
Others were not so fortunate. “The scenes at the morgue, where now thirty-two bodies are lying in a ghastly heap on the floor of the small room, are heart-rending beyong human power of description. A strong police force is necessary to keep anxious enquirers in line. ” A special monument was erected at Forest Home Cemetery to honor the Newhall Hotel dead — including several bodies that were never identified.
The Newhall Hotel had long been considered a “tinder box” — and rightly so. Thirty fires had been reported at the wooden property since 1875. Enough was enough for local officials: fire escapes were mandated on all new Milwaukee buildings after 1883.
New buildings replaced the ruins of the Newhall House — and their residents have long reported smelling smoke, hearing strange noises and seeing streaks of bright light in their peripheral vision. Are the unknown victims of the Newhall House fire still roasting in the 600 block of North Broadway?