It started at the Union Oil and Paint Company warehouse, located at 323 N. Water Street in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. It was about 5:30 pm on Friday October 28, 1892 when an oil barrel exploded, sparking a small fire.
The winds that day were were gale force. The 50 mile-per-hour winds fanned the flames and help them leap from building to building. An alarm rang at Engine House 10, but they were already out at another fire. Soon the pressing winds lit up the adjoining Block Liquor Warehouse.
The wind helped spread the fire behind the backs of the fire fighters. As the fought the initial blaze at the Union Oil, they failed to notice that the fire had jumped to the seven-story Bud and Kip Furniture Factory until the building burst into flame. The ammonia tanks of the Weisel and Vilter building exploded, sending flaming debris in every direction, igniting more fires.
The Milwaukee fire fighters were soon out-taxed. Building after building was engulfed. Calls went to other fire departments, even as far as Chicago. Chicago’s Fire Marshall remembered the help his city has received during their great fire 20 years previous and sent four engines on flatcars to help.
By 10:30 pm, the Kenosha fire department had arrived to help. Their arrival was greeted with cheers from the many bystanders. Soon, Chicago arrived, then Racine, followed by the Oshkosh fire departments. By 11 pm, 300 fire fighters were on scene battling the blaze that now extended some 16 city blocks.
The fire was extinguished by dawn, leaving behind a swatch of destruction that covered 20 city blocks. Two fire fighters died and five civilians died and more than 1,900 people, mostly Irish, were left homeless. Property loss numbers 216 rail cars and 440 buildings amounting to a lost estimated at $5 million dollars. It was Milwaukee’s largest and most devastating fire.
Over the next 36 years, the Third Ward was rebuilt. The newer buildings had a similar architectural look, giving the neighborhood a cohesive look. But more than that, the displaced Irish community was replaced by the immigrating Italians, giving the new Third Ward a vastly different social order also.
In 1984, approximately 10 square blocks containing 70 buildings were accepted by the National Registry of Historic Places and named “The Historic Third Ward District.”
Today, the Historic Third Ward of Milwaukee is a thriving district filled with artistic activity and is the home to over 400 businesses including restaurants, art galleries, dance companies, and shops.