The first time the Newhall House hotel burned was on St. Valentine’s Day in 1863. Milwaukee firefighters contained to just nine rooms. The final fire began in the early hours of January 10, 1883, and would become the deadliest disaster in the city’s history.
When the Newhall House opened in August of 1857, it was one of the grandest hotels in the country. It was six stories high, with 300 rooms, and quickly became the place to stay for traveling actors and other performers stopping in Milwaukee.
Even so, owner Daniel Newhall soon realized that a luxury hotel in Milwaukee wasn’t as viable as he thought, and it turned into a financial nightmare. He sold it after just eight years.
The hotel changed hands numerous more times during its short life, and by 1883—under its ninth owner—the building was a relic in disrepair. Milwaukee firefighters considered it a tinderbox just waiting to ignite.
On January 10th, there were some 180 guests and employees asleep in the hotel when the fire began.
The cause was never determined, but the first flames were seen in the elevator shaft. Open at the top, frigid night air poured into the shaft and fueled the fire. It spread rapidly up the shaft to all six floors and consumed the entire building.
By the time the firefighters arrived, guests and employees alike were leaping from the upper floors. In the alley, 12 young women who were live-in domestic servants plummeted to their deaths from the fifth floor to avoid the flames.
Whether through windows or flaming hallways, firemen and other helping hands rescued as many people as they could.
Famous circus performers Charles Stratton (stage name: General Tom Thumb) and Lavinia Warren, both famous under P.T. Barnum’s big top for their extremely short stature, were staying in the Newhall House that night. One story tells of a firefighter carrying them both down the ladder to safety under one arm.
In the end, as many as 90 people perished in the tragedy. Many were burned beyond recognition.
Catholic victims were interred in Calvary Cemetery. Many more were buried in a mass grave in Forest Home Cemetery which is now marked by a tall memorial monument engraved with their names.
Ghosts of the Newhall House
Today, the Hilton Garden Inn occupies the corner of Broadway and East Michigan Street where the Newhall House once stood.
Over the years, the hotel has earned the reputation as one of the most haunted hotels in Milwaukee.
“Guests have reported unexplained noises from unknown sources clanking around the building, and doors swinging open and shut when there’s nobody on the other side,” writes American Ghost Walks, Milwaukee-based purveyors of unique and fascinating ghost tours. “One of the property’s restless spirits has also taken to pulling people’s hair when they’re relaxing alone in their rooms. Rooms 201 and 326 appear particularly affected, but guests have reported paranormal activity throughout the hotel over the years.”
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