The Newhall House hotel opened in the Fall of 1857 to praise from across the nation. The Newhall was among the tallest buildings in the country and was considered to be one of the finest hotels outside of New York City.
The hotel almost immediately became a financial burden to all those involved. After passing through numerous owners and proprietors, the hotel was shuttered in 1869. In the name of civic betterment, a company of local business leaders pooled the funds to reopen the house.
The Newhall lingered as a kind stubborn relic to a forgotten era in Milwaukee. It was still favored among certain locals and travelers, but by the 1880s it was no longer the city’s finest hotel. Despite a number of alterations made to the house in the name of fire safety, it was still a product of its time and was – as were hundreds of other buildings in Milwaukee – a potential tinderbox.
In January 1883, on a cold an unassuming night, a fire started at the base of the Newhall’s elevator shaft. Within 45 minutes, the hotel – once the very emblem of all Milwaukee’s greatest hopes – laid ruined and 75 people were dead or dying. Damn The Old Tinderbox tells the incredible story of the hotel – the city that made it and the fire and the ruined it.