It’s seems that every Great City has been visited an even Greater Fire – a fire so devastating that much of the city is lost to the flames, forcing citizens to rebuild anew. The Great Fire of Rome (or Magnum Incendium Romae, if you want to impress your friends) spread quickly and burned for six days in the year 64 AD, leaving only four of the city’s fourteen districts completely unscathed. The Great Fire of London gutted the city’s medieval center inside of the old Roman City Wall, burning over 13,200 houses to the ground. One of the United States’ most infamous of fires (which is often incorrectly blamed on a cow owned by Mrs. Catherine O’Leary) killed hundreds of Chicagoans and destroyed an area of about 3.3 square miles. In many ways, the fire was a sort of tragic cleansing for the Midwestern city as it afforded Chicago the opportunity to rebuild bigger and better, allowing it to become one of the most populous and prosperous in the nation. Milwaukee, too, has its own story of tragedy and renewal.
Deep within the vaults of MCHS are housed relics of a devastating event that altered the streets of this city forever – the Great Third Ward Fire. These remains of Milwaukee’s own famous fire are testament to the area’s destruction and eventual rebirth. The Great Third Ward Fire of Milwaukee shares many similarities with some of history’s more oft-discussed blazes. What starts as a small mistake inside the particular city’s more impoverished neighborhoods ends up engulfing large swaths of entire districts. Once the flames have subsided, the hard work of revitalization begins.
The evening of Friday, October 28th, 1892 was much the same as any in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. A strong, dry wind whipped through the streets of that mid-Autumn day. Residents were busy closing down their shops for the night after an honest day’s work. The Third Ward was the epicenter for dry goods commerce for Milwaukee’s flourishing population of recent Irish immigrants, or descendants thereof. However, the bustling liveliness of this section of town would soon come grinding to a halt.
The fire started between 5:30 and 5:40 in the building occupied by the Union Oil Company, at 275 East Water Street. By odd coincidence, three other fires had been raging throughout the city at the time and many of the fire engines were unavailable. It took almost fifteen minutes before there was any response. This delayed response by the fire department, at the time led by Chief Foley, allowed a series of explosions to go off within the burning building, but within a half an hour it was believed that the flames were under control. By 6:40, many of the onlookers that had gathered to watch the firemen do their work, and even some of the fire fighters themselves, began to pack up and go home.
Unfortunately, the fire fighters work was far from over. A strong gale, blowing 50 miles per hour, rushed through the streets of the Third Ward and suddenly the wholesale druggist next door, the F. Dohmen Company, was swallowed by the scorching heat and smoke being carried by the powerful wind.
The flames then jumped several buildings and took grip in the Bob & Kipp factory on the East Side of East Water Street and before long had swallowed Jacob Wellauer & Co.’s wholesale grocery store across the street. No amount of water could save the vacant three-story brick building. The walls began to tremble and falter. Voices could be heard over the roar of the flames ordering the onlooking crowd to stand back. The building fell with a deafening crack.
While the firefighters dealt with the situation at Wellauer, the fire had consumed Roundy, Peckham & Co. (Yes, that Roundy’s), the Milwaukee Chair Company and an empty building owned the Pfister & Vogel Leather Company.
The Great Third Ward Fire was not without awe-inducing spectacle. According to the Milwaukee Journal, the destruction of the B. Leidersdorf & Co. building, which housed an immense stash of tobacco, was particularly beautiful, in a macabre sort of way:
The fire started here shortly before 10 o’clock and labored on the building up to nearly 11:15, when the walls came down with a crash. The smoke of the burning tobacco gave the flames a blue tint, and the hose directed against the building seemed utterly powerless in the unequal combat.
One by one, Milwaukee institutions were felled by the flames – J. E. Patton Co., J. P. Kissinger & Co., Milwaukee Art Glass, Inbusch Bros., the Mann Bag Company, Crystal Soap Co., Bayley Bros.’ iron foundry and Wirth, Hammel & Co.’s livery stables were all ash within hours. The plethora of water hoses taking aim at the imposing fire were simply no match.
Once again, fierce winds picked up speed carrying soot, ash and flame toward Lake Michigan. Chief of Police Janssen ordered his entire force to the front lines of the fight against the fire to assist in pulling furniture and irreplaceable from families homes as it raged across the Third Ward’s residential areas.
Fifteen long trains of freight cars stood in the fire’s way during its march southward. Well over a million dollars worth of railroad property was devoured. The freight house nearby was filled with oil. Soon, the smell of burning petroleum filled with air and a series of explosions reportedly shook the earth.
Around 9:30 that night, the Milwaukee Gas Company burst into flames. The building occupied the area between Milwaukee, Menomonee and Erie Streets. The gas went out in many parts of the city and it was feared that the company was doomed. Fortunately, the valuable property was almost entirely saved from destruction.
For devastation of this magnitude, the fire died with relatively little fanfare. Fire fighters cornered the flames at Fernekes’ Candy factory. It was thought, for quite some time, that this building could be saved, and the flames finally subdued, but the intense heat of the surrounding destruction made impossible to rescue the favorite local candy manufacturer. It was only after this building was dismantled that the brave men battling the blaze were able to gain the upper hand and prevent further damage to the neighborhood.
When all was said and done, the toll of Great Third Ward Fire was and estimate $4 million, which included 215 railroad cars, 440 buildings, leaving more than 1,900 individuals of the Irish community homeless. Worse still, the fire claimed four lives that night, including two firemen. The Historical Society houses the coroner’s inquests for several of these deaths.
Then began the immediate, though long, clean up and road to recovery. Insurance footed the bill for much of the damage to the tune of $2,798,221. The Chamber of Commerce appointed a committee to receive funds and afford relief to the displaced persons. Some truly astounding artifacts were found amongst the ruble. Some of these have made their way into the vaults of MCHS.
As funding poured into the Third Ward, a significant metamorphosis occurred in the area. No longer was the neighborhood dominated by the Irish-American community and dry-goods commerce. Instead Italian warehouse and manufacturing businesses infiltrated and began to dominate the local economy. Because many of the buildings were erected during a surprisingly short time period, the area has a striking cohesion unseen in many of Milwaukee’s other neighborhoods.
Today, the Historic Third Ward is a thriving commercial area. Its renaissance is anchored by many specialty shops, restaurants, art galleries and theaters and it has become one of Milwaukee’s most alluring districts for tourists. The Milwaukee Fire Department Engine Company #10, built only a year after the fire, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1991, a plaque was erected in the area, explain the tragedy of the 1892 fire for any curious visitors.
In many ways, the present prosperity of the Historic Third Ward neighborhood can be directly attributed to the fire itself. Like the Chicagoans, Londoners, and Romans before them, Milwaukeeans set out to not only restore the establishments lost to the flames, but sought drastic improvements in the district. The result was a spectacular revitalization of an area that was once in decay. The relics that were found amongst the rubble and devastation and are currently housed in MCHS’s vaults serve to remind us that progress is often not possible without sacrifice and hardship. Sometimes, prosperity can be achieved through adversity.
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