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'Damn The Old Tinderbox!' Tells The Story Of Milwaukee's Historic Newhall House Fire

In the late 1800s, Milwaukee was a city defined by industry. Among other things, the city was the world’s largest primary wheat market, which made the city a hub of business. Like other wealthy Milwaukeeans, grain trader Daniel Newhall capitalized on the influx of people by creating a luxury hotel known as the Newhall House. At six stories, it was one of the largest buildings in the country when it was built in 1857.

History remembers the Newhouse not for its opulence, but for the gruesome event that transpired there one January night in 1883. In the early morning hours, a fire began in the basement of the building. Although it lasted less than an hour, at least 75 people were killed and the hotel was in ruins. It remains one of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history. 

The fire began at the base of the hotel's wood-lined elevator shaft, which had a vented cap at the top that allowed air flow from outside. As the fire took hold, the cold air from outside was sucked into the elevator shaft and its wooden sides delivered the fire to each floor of the building. 

"I don’t imagine you could have more perfectly designed a system to destroy this building than this elevator shaft that within a few minutes delivered the fire to every floor of the house and the roof," says writer Matthew Prigge. 

His new book, Damn the Old Tinderbox!: Milwaukee's Palace of the West and the Fire That Defined an Era, chronicles what happened at every step of the fire, how people survived, and how they perished. Prigge will talk about his book at a Boswell Book Company event on Tuesday, March 19 at 7 p.m.  

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.