Widely considered to be one of the most haunted hotels in Milwaukee’s Juneau Town neighborhood, the Hilton Garden Inn has undergone several transformations and rebrandings to become what it is today: a landmark of grandiose architecture, design, and elegance.
But behind this idyllic facade lies a gruesome history that dates back to the mid-19th century, a history that cannot be hidden behind a few layers of fresh paint. Join Brew City Ghosts and travel back in time to a dark era in Milwaukee’s history while learning about the not-so-secret horrors and real-life tragedies that plague this seemingly cursed site.
Milwaukee is Wisconsin’s most populous city today, but it wasn’t always that way. Before industrialization came to the central United States, what’s known as current-day Wisconsin remained relatively uninhabited. Fur trading was an especially lucrative industry around the Great Lakes in the 1700s, but the city wasn’t officially founded until 1846.
Thanks to its position on Lake Michigan, Milwaukee had the potential to become a significant port city for shipping and transporting goods throughout the region—which it did, thanks to its biggest, drinkable export.
Milwaukee wouldn’t become a “boom town” until the 1840s when hundreds of German immigrants headed west to the new state of Wisconsin after they were forced to flee their home country after facing religious and political persecution. With this new wave of German immigrants came the start of a particularly German industry in Milwaukee: beer.
The Germans wasted no time in setting up breweries after they arrived, thus establishing companies such as Pabst, Miller, Schlitz, and Blatz. This came to define Milwaukee, making the city synonymous with beer. By 1856, there were more than two dozen breweries in town, making it one of the most profitable industries next to iron, steel, and grain. With more money pouring into this once-quiet town, Milwaukee had to grow, creating homes, businesses, and hotels.
Long before it was the Hilton Garden Inn, a devastating catastrophe rocked 611 North Broadway, then known as the Newhall House. A prominent hotel in the heart of downtown Milwaukee, the Newhall House was built by merchant Daniel Newhall in 1856 as one of the nation’s most magnificent premier hotels. At the time of its construction, it was among the tallest buildings in the country, with 300 rooms and towering six stories high.
However, its luxurious status proved to be the very same thing that brought about its downfall. The hotel faced financial turmoil within its first few years of business, leaving Daniel Newhall tens of thousands of dollars in debt. It closed and re-opened several times but continued to draw guests until its sudden and shocking destruction.
On January 10, 1883, hundreds of Milwaukee residents and visitors would be forever changed after a deadly fire broke out at the Newhall House. There were roughly 180 staff and guests in the house on that fateful night when a fire started at the base of the hotel’s elevator shaft. The flames spread at an alarming speed, with firefighter Sam McDowell recalling the incident: “The building was like a flaming straw stack. Men and women could be seen at their windows, shouting for help, screaming in despair.”
Strangely, hotel employees neglected to call the fire department until 15 minutes after the flames began spreading, leaving slumbering guests completely unaware of the impending danger. Sadly, the result was a long-lasting blaze that left 75 dead, with many of those lives lost being people leaping from their room windows in desperation. This shocking event left an irreversible legacy of pain, suffering, and death on this site, leaving a dark energy that can still be felt and experienced to this day— no matter how many times the building changes its name.
The Newhall fire viciously claimed several lives, leading many to suspect that the lingering souls of victims continue to haunt 611 North Broadway to this day. Unsurprisingly, unusual activity has been reported by guests who dare to check into Milwaukee’s Hilton Garden Inn.
People have encountered eerie sounds coming from dark corridors at night, in addition to the disembodied phantom touches of what very well may be the lingering souls of fire victims who find themselves unable to check out of the inn. Are these the long-dead ghosts of those who burned in the blaze of the Newhall fire? Or perhaps, the phantoms of those who tragically leaped to their deaths from the fifth floor, trying to avoid being roasted in the flames?
It’s long been said that one particular spirit is especially playful with guests from beyond the grave. This entity, which remains attached to the hotel, allegedly likes to pull people’s hair inside their rooms or in different parts of the hotel, often while they’re alone.
It remains a mystery while it’s uncertain who or what this entity is, or if they’re somehow attached to the building due to the fire or some other incident. Regardless, their presence continues to send a shiver down guests’ spines today, perhaps imprisoned to walk the halls of the Hilton Garden Inn for eternity.
Hilton Hotels purchased the Loyalty Building in 2011 and finished converting the space to the Hilton Garden Inn Milwaukee Downtown in 2012, as it remains today. Guests can check into one of the inn’s 127 rooms for close proximity to Henry Maier Festival Park, Fiserv Forum, and American Family Field, which draw thousands of visitors each year. However, overnight guests might just find that they’re not always alone in this notoriously haunted hotel…something that continues to give unsuspecting people a fright to this day.