From the time of the great famine in Ireland (1848) and for 50 years thereafter some 3,000,000 Irish emigrated to the United States. During that same time, the Port of Milwaukee, a thriving industrial city, became world class in the leather industry and ranked highly in other industries as well. Its industrial, manufacturing, commercial, harbor and railroad facilities often advertised great opportunities for unskilled, skilled and professionally trained persons. Many hopeful Irish immigrants saw great opportunity for employment and the potential for success that Milwaukee offered. Early Irish immigrants found their way to Milwaukee as early as 1830 and by 1850 the Irish population in Wisconsin reached 21,000, the largest ethnic population in the state. In 1847, Irish immigrants reached Milwaukee's Third Ward. These plucky people and their offspring made many contributions to the religious, social, economic and political welfare of Milwaukee, to other towns and to rural communities throughout the state.
The following presents a glimpse of conditions in Milwaukee's "Irish Third Ward" in 1892 and tells of two of its celebrated heroes - James Foley and Thomas A. Clancy. The former, Chief of Milwaukee's Fire Department, and the latter, Captain of the No. 10 Engine House in the heart of the old Third Ward.
By 1850 many industrial, manufacturing, railroad and harbor facilities were concentrated in the tapering south end of the ward. Here there was a large demand for laborers and many Irish immigrants were ready and willing to fill the need. Most of the older residents of the ward were born in Ireland and many were first generation American-born Irish. It was here that Tom Clancy was born. Tom had a full measure of Irish charm, wit and grit and soon rose to the rank of Fire Captain of No. 10 Engine House located in the heart of Milwaukee's Irish Third Ward.
To the east, the Chicago & North Western railroad yards flanked the lower part of the Third Ward (now a parking lot for the Italian Community Center). A short distance beyond lies Lake Michigan. To the west, about six city blocks, the Milwaukee River flows south and somewhat parallel to the lake. Before making a soft easterly bend, it is joined by the Menomonee and Kinnickinnic Rivers. At their confluence, the Milwaukee River widens and empties gently into Lake Michigan. Bounded on the west and south by the Milwaukee River, on the east by Lake Michigan, this narrow strip of land was set apart from the larger community from all directions but north. Several steel-trussed draw bridges allowed water borne traffic to pass up and down the Milwaukee River and, at the same time, made connections with roads on each side of the river for land borne traffic.
By 1890, this narrow neck of land was congested with factories, wharves, railroad yards, tracks and warehouses. Lumber, coal and drums of oil were stacked wherever there was room. It was argues that fire fighting equipment could not pass blocked back-roads, alleys and entrances to docks to fight any fires that might occur. This hazardous condition was known by the common council but nothing was done to relieve the congested areas. Foley argued in support of a fire boat to fight potential fires from the riverside. The fireboat Cataract was built, made ready and stationed in the river. Boat and crew were soon called upon to show what they could do.
Coal was the major source of energy for factories, steamboats and steam engines. It provided heat for commercial buildings, stores and homes. Columns of black and gray smoke poured unceasingly from numerous stacks and chimneys. The sky above was hard-pressed to support the weight of shapeless and ever-changing forms of carbon-laden clouds. Often, thick clouds of smoke descended upon the ward and and covered it like a blanket of black fog. Noxious gasses filled the air, which undoubtedly contributed to many respiratory diseases common to residents of the ward. The pungent foul air could not be compared with the fresh air of the countryside or coastal areas of Ireland. On hot, muggy summer days, gray and black smoke mingled and hung in various sinister forms that drifted in, between and over soot-laden buildings. Coal-fired steamboats often made their way upriver beyond the present location of the Performing Arts Center. Smoke from steamboat smoke stacks often blackened the skies at the Wisconsin Avenue Bridge (current name). From high bluffs northward, the view south from Wisconsin Avenue was one of gloom and doom. In retrospect, those fouled skies seemingly foretold impending disaster.
There was an average of seven children in each Irish household. Their homes were no more than little frame wooden buildings on very small lots--often as narrow as 25 feet and sometimes less. Their one or two-storied wood frame houses were so close together that one could touch the outside walls of adjacent houses with outstretched arms. Some houses on Jefferson, Jackson and Van Buren Streets were built between 1840 and 1860 and others somewhat earlier. Most frame houses were quite small and were without indoor plumbing and electricity. Backyard "comfort stations" were often shared with the neighbors. There was much to be desired when compared with today's luxuries. However, there was great faith, hope and promise for better days to come than what they could expect in Ireland from 1846-1848. Frequent fist fights, brawls and a lynching on Buffalo Street (1861) soon earned the ward a title that held for years - "The Bloody Third Ward."
Milwaukee was a very busy port between 1842 and 1892. Some fathers and their sons made a hard-earned dollar as dock workers or as deck hands on small freighters and barges that plied the lake and canals. It was not an easy task to feed, clothe and shelter seven children. Many fathers worked long hard days in railroad shops or factories, or as common laborers just a few blocks from home. Young Irish lads vied for jobs as messenger boys for local banks, businesses and the grain exchange. It is said that a man's work is from sun to sun and a woman's work was never done. Mothers worked endless hours cooking, baking, mending, cleaning, scrubbing, and gladly took in sewing to make a few cents for themselves. Lucky lasses found work as waitresses, or as maidservants in hotels and in luxurious stone homes high above verdant bluffs north along the lake. Life was hard in the south end of the ward and sometimes cruel. By 1892, the lower Third Ward had grown old and had deteriorated greatly.
Early in October of that year, signs of fall began to appear. The sun was setting earlier and cool winds from the lake provided a welcome relief from the hot, muggy days of August and early September. Winter months were not far off. Wise and prudent members of the community busily prepared themselves for a bitter, cold winter accurately predicted by the Farmer's Almanac. As the weary days wore away, fall winds increased in number and bitterness. On the afternoon of Friday, October 28, winds reached a gale force of 50 miles per hour. With heads bent forward against cold and pressing bitter winds, laborers and shoppers headed homeward that evening to the warmth of their kitchen stoves. Tomorrow was Saturday, the end of another hard week.
But today, Friday at 5:30 p.m., the fire alarm sounded at Engine House 10, but Clancy and crew were out on another call. A fire had started at the Union Oil and Paint Company Building located at 273 East Water Street (now 232 North Water Street). The fire spread rapidly in advance of very strong winds. Flashing tongues of fire extended from broken windows and burst into the street. Sounds from the roaring fire grew louder than the rushing wind. Increasing winds forced lusting fires to the adjoining Block Liquor Warehouse.
The fireboat Cataract was under way and, upon arrival, opened all its fire hoses upon the burning building from a riverside position. Having just returned from a fire call elsewhere, Clancy and crew at No. 10 Engine House were a few minutes late in responding to this call. However, they were soon on the scene, hoses were readied and operating. But by that time, the Block and Dohmen's Wholesale Drug Company buildings were also on fire.
By 6 p.m. the wind was fierce, fires had spread and a general alarm was sounded; all other local fire companies responded and a full attack was made on the Union Oil and Paint fire. Next door was a large, brick seven-story building, the Bub and Kipp Furniture Factory. Every floor was loaded with furniture. Gusting winds, roaring fires, the noise of the engines and sounds from fire hoses made such a racket that no one could hear orders or shouts of warning. Firemen concentrated all effort on the potentially dangerous Union Oil fire. Suddenly the furniture factory burst into a mass of flames. Tongues of fire extended outward from windows of the burning building. Gusting winds increased in force. The intensity of heat from the burning buildings forced fire fighters to withdraw or be overcome.
To appraise the worsening situation, Fire Chief James Foley ran to the corner of Buffalo Street. What he saw was frightening-nearly a city block of property was on fire. Upon their retreat to avoid being engulfed by the sudden burst of flames from the furniture factory, firemen were forced to abandon five major pieces of equipment. Engines and wagons unavoidably left behind were engulfed in a roaring inferno. This loss was one-third of the total fire-fighting equipment on the scene, but retreating firemen had escaped death by a very slim margin. At about 7:30 p.m., the east and south walls of the burning Bub and Kipp Building collapsed. Flames leaped out from behind its collapsed walls, across the alley and ignited the four-story paint factory of the J.E. Patton Company at 266-72 East Water Street. North of the paint factory, rapidly expanding fires engulfed the Milwaukee Art Glass and then the Kissinger Wholesale Liquor buildings. To the south of the paint building, on East Water Street, stood the dry goods store of Goll and Frank. It became surrounded by burning buildings on three sides. But the store was saved by the courage and effort on the parts of Captain Harden and the volunteer crew of local Irish youth who were under orders from Clancy. Their success was made possible by much help from the fireboat Cataract.
Unrelenting winds pressed tongues of fire onward. By 7:30 p.m., the raging fires were beyond the capabilities of local firemen. Chief Foley sent telegrams asking for help from Fire Marshal Swenie of Chicago and to Fire Chiefs at Racine, Kenosha, Sheboygan, Oshkosh and Janesville. In the meantime, on-scene firemen regrouped. They cast ropes with grappling hooks onto engines and steamers in the inferno. Hand over hand they were hauled out of the flames. Although somewhat damaged, the engines were still functional and immediately put to work.
But time spent retrieving the endangered fire fighting equipment took valuable time away from preventing the burgeoning number of new fires and restraining others. Strong winds pressed tongues of fire in every direction, but mainly across Broadway and Buffalo streets. At about 8 p.m., Jacob Wellner's Grocery Warehouse on Broadway was ablaze and soon thereafter Roundy and Peckham's four-storied Wholesale Grocery Warehouse and the National Liquor Warehouse (a three-storied building) were afire. Adjacent to Jacob Wellner's Warehouse were two buildings-four and five stories high-J.S. Spenser's Milwaukee Chair Company. They, too, became engulfed by a raging torrent of flames. The winds were unrelenting.
Recognizing the immediate danger to buildings along Broadway Street, Chief Foley made a front along Chicago and Detroit streets. At that moment, ammonia tanks in the Weisel and Vilter building at Broadway and Detroit exploded. Its walls collapsed and debris was hurled in all directions. Chief Foley and two other firemen were trapped beneath the fallen debris. All were dragged from beneath the fallen rubble but the two firemen were killed and only Foley survived. Although badly injured, he declined medical attention and continued at his post until the fire was under control.
At the intersection of East Water and Chicago Streets firemen fought valiantly to prevent the ravaging fires from engulfing the buildings located along the east bank of the Milwaukee River. Streams of water were poured into the endangered four-story Ferneckes Brothers Candy Company, but to no avail. Within one hour the building was swallowed up by an overwhelming mass of fire. Due to pressure of intense heat within the building, three of its brick walls burst outward without warning onto East Water Street.
At 10 p.m., the harsh winds showed no sign of clemency. With total disregard for life or property, ruthless winds extended gluttonous fires even farther. Flames rapidly engulfed the building owned by the Leidersdorff Tobacco Company, located at East Water and Buffalo streets. In just a few minutes the building was completely consumed by roaring fires and its walls collapsed. Fallen burning timbers and large broken sections of its stone and brick walls completely closed the intersection. All opportunities for a 'last ditch' effort to use East Water Street for the transfer of fire engines and other fire wagons were now gone.
Near gale winds pressed hungering flames southward from Leidersdorff's building to Inbusch Brothers Grocery Warehouse and to the adjacent street. Engine House 10 and buildings to the south were set afire and soon the Reideburg Bodden Vinegar Works was swallowed by ravaging fires. The high winds continued unabated.
As fearful Irish immigrants watched building after building succumb to the growing number of fires, their dwindling hope became despair when angry flames approached their frail frame homes. Suddenly the Milwaukee Gas Works and the Hansen Malt and Hop buildings burst into flames. Colored plumes of fire and hot red embers thrust skyward. The stench of burning chemicals, malt, animal hides, charred wood, pungent odors from the Vinegar Company fire and increased multicolored flames cast before thier eyes a vivid image of hellfire. Fearing for their lives, residents fled from their homes on Jefferson, Jackson and Van Buren streets. Some carried away all belongings they could heap into a wheelbarrow, on their backs, and what their aching arms could carry. Through tearful eyes, children saw skeletons of their homes in flames and others newly-clothed with flowing flames of fire. What was abandoned was rapidly consumed by the gluttonous appetite of fire.
By now it was certain that the Chicago and North Western freight yards were in great danger. More than two hundred boxcars stood on the sidings. Two C&NW freight houses stood on Jackson Street. Freight House Number 1 was 360 feet long and sixty feet wide, and Freight House Number 2 was 475 feet long. These two buildings, end to end, extended from Buffalo and beyond Menomonee streets. The high winds continued without mercy. This was the height of the crisis and only three fire engines were all that could be sent to save both freight houses and their contents from the same fate visited upon the other buildings. In spite of great efforts, both freight houses had to be abandoned to the rapidly expanding fires which were apparently bent for the total destruction of all Third Ward properties.
The National Guard was called out to help the fleeing victims of the fire, to guard against pillagers and to restrain the increasing numbers of curious onlookers. Families were separated in flight and cries of fear and loss were heard above the din. Tearful mothers clutched their children as they made their way to safer ground. The mood of the crown varied. Many of the onlookers expressed great compassion; others cast aside all thought of danger to themselves and offerred much needed help to weeping refugees. Some calloused bystanders were amused by the spectacle of fire and made bets among themselves on the progress of many fires that raced before the wind.
At about 10:30 p.m., Chief Barr of Kenosha arrived with an engine, two fire officers and 18 crew members. They were greeted with applause and shouts from a large body of curious onlookers. Soon thereafter the First Assistant Fire Marshal, 39 officers and a full crew arrived from Chicago. Chief Abesser and his crew arrived from Racine.
Chief Brauer, crew and engines from Oshkosh arrived aboard flat cars on C&NW tracks. They were somewhat late in arriving because the tracks before them were filled with a large number of freight cars hauled to safety from the burning freight yards.
There were 300 firefighters on the scene, but by 11 p.m. flames spread from the burning Fernekes building to the Hilpert Company building, manufacturing chemists. Soon drums of oil and other chemicals were ignited. Numerous explosions sent forth sharp cracking and booming sounds. Hot, multicolored flames shot skyward.
By midnight the fire was under control but still blazing. More than 440 buildings throughout 20 city blocks were completely destroyed. Calculated in terms of a 1892 appraisal, the loss was in excess of $4.5 million. Two firemen and five other people died, more than 1,800 people were made homeless and about 185 freight cars were lost. This was Milwaukee's greatest fire. (Click here for a diagram of areas affected by the fire.)
Some refugees spend the night in St. John Cathedral, some at the local schoolhouse and others with friends or at hotels nearby. Relief was soon at hand. Financial pledges poured in from other states, local businesses and private sources to help the refugees. The local Chamber of Commerce raised $50,000 on the spot. Donations were made by the P.D. Armour Company of Chicago, and many others. Within two weeks, $137,000 was raised.
The origin of the fire was investigated but its cause was undetermined. Arson was expected but never established.
The great fire of 1892 displaced all the Irish from the Third Ward and brought to an end a cohesion of the Irish people in Milwaukee. Because of their perseverance, faith and, perhaps, long oversue good fortune, many overcame ill effects of the disaster by finding new jobs and new homes west on Tory Hill and Merrill Parks areas in Milwaukee and in rural Wisconsin.
The Historic Third Ward was rebuilt between 1900 and 1920 and many Italian immigrants moved in and settled the ward in very large numbers. The historically famous "Irish Third Ward" was repopulated by a very colorful peoples. Their social and religious life came to focus on the little pink church of the Blessed Virgin of Pompeii. The little church, built in 1904, was located at 419 N. Jackson Street until being razed in 1967 to provide adequate space for an elevated highway.
Today, nothing remains of the south portion of the Historic Third Ward to remind us of the sights and sounds of its hardy and very plucky Irish residents. Engine House No. 10 was rebuilt shortly after the fire. It stands quietly today, alone and rarely visited, a mute memorial of Milwaukee's "Irish Third Ward."
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