Looking back: The Historic Third Ward fire

Looking back: The Historic Third Ward fire
Posted at 7:10 PM, Oct 31, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-31 20:16:51-04

MILWAUKEE -- It may be one of Milwaukee's most trendy spots to live, shop and eat, but the heart of the Historic Third Ward was devastated by one of the city's largest fires more than 100 years ago.  

The Third Ward was established on swampy lands. The first landfills started in the 1830's and by the mid-1800's the area had been primarily settled by Irish immigrants. 

Master of Milwaukee history, John Gurda, spoke with TODAY'S TMJ4 about the neighborhood before, during and after the fire. 

"It was filled in with Irish labor and covered with Irish housing as soon as the muck was dry," Gurda said. 

Also known as the "Bloody Third," it was the rough part of town in the 19th century. According to Gurda, it had the highest arrest rate and the most saloons in the city. 

However, the Irish were making their way up the economic ladder in Milwaukee and had already begun moving westward. The fire sped things up. 

"It rather dramatically accelerated a movement that was already underway," Gurda said.  

It was a cold day in late October 1892. Winds were blowing as fast as 50 mph. According to Milwaukee Fire Department Deputy Chief James Ley, MFD had responded to three fires already that day. So when a fire broke out at the Water Street Union Oil & Paint Company, it took awhile to get water on it. 

It went to a third alarm, the highest the alarm system went at the time, but MFD got it knock down within a few hours.

"When they thought they had it under control, all of a sudden across the street on East Water and Broadway, they looked up and there was a seven-story furniture factory," Ley said. "All of the sudden that was on fire." 

According to Ley, it's not known what caused the second fire. It could have been an ember from the fist fire or could have been a spark from the steam engine. Regardless, they were in trouble. 

With the high winds and the fire department being hooked up for the initial fire, it spread fast. 

"The wind blew it eastwards to the lake, and it just started rolling," Ley said. 

When the fire was finally out, more than 400 buildings were destroyed, thousands of people were left homeless, and four people had died -- including a firefighter who was crushed by a wall during the initial blaze. 

"There was one account that said that the houses burned as fast as tissue paper, so it really was this raging wall of fire," Gurda said.

The damages were around $6 million, according to Gurda, and the Italian immigrants moved in soon after. Two of the first buildings they put up were saloons among the rubble. 

Though the area is very different today, then it was a place for a hard day's work. 

"Largely people working with their backs and their hands, both the Irish and the Italians," Gurda said. 

There's a historic marker at N Broadway and E Buffalo St. that stands in memory of the Third Ward Fire of 1892.