The Klondike Theater Fire Of 1901

Oct 9, 2019

Three women of "The Singing Sinners," a vaudeville act at the Orpheum Theater, are reading "The Capitol Times" serial story "Guilty Lips," in their dressing room in 1931.
Credit WISCONSIN HISTORICAL SOCIETY, IMAGE ID: 18918, WISCONSINHISTORY.ORG

For this week's A Northwoods Moment in History, Gary Entz remembers the late Klondike Theater in Hurley and the horrific fire in 1901 that resulted in its tragic end.

In the days before movies, television, and radio, people sought out other venues for entertainment.  In Great Britain during the eighteenth century, many taverns started to offer entertainment in the form of singers, dancers, acrobats, comedians, jugglers, and magicians.  A licensing act in 1757 tried to curtail such boisterous activity, but it had the opposite effect.  The variety shows were so popular that larger taverns simply converted into theaters, and consequently the British Music Hall was born.  Music Hall entertainment made its way over to the United States and was extremely popular in both urban and frontier settlements.  By the 1890s it was largely known as Vaudeville.

Vaudeville was popular in northern Wisconsin’s logging and mining communities as well, and it is not surprising that some of the most raucous vaudeville theaters were in the Ironwood and Hurley region.  One such establishment was the Klondike Theater, which located in Hurley in the 1890s.  Like other boomtowns of the nineteenth century many of Hurley’s early buildings were put up quickly, and the Klondike was likely not the most carefully constructed theater.  It was described as “a large building and a veritable fire trap.”  It caught fire once before in 1898 and nearly burned to the ground.  Fire was a serious risk for theaters because in the days before many buildings were electrified, stages were lit by means of a gas flame used to heat a cylinder of quicklime. When it reached a certain temperature, the quicklime would begin to incandesce. This illumination could then be directed by reflectors and lenses on the wooden stage.  This is where the term “performing in the limelight” comes from.

Performances followed by a dance went as scheduled at the Klondike Theater on November 5, 1901, but something went wrong after the final curtain fell.  During the early morning hours of November 6, the people in the town of Hurley awoke to cries of Fire!  It is not entirely certain what started the fire, and there were accusations after the fact that the fire was deliberately set; however, the fire did start on the stage, which makes the lighting a likely culprit.

Firefighters arrived quickly but it was already too late as the building was a mass of flames.  The third story of the building was used as a sleeping quarters for the performers.  Firefighters from Hurley and Ironwood could hear the screams of the building occupants, but there was little they could do as the flames had cut off all access to the upper floors.  All they could do was fight to prevent the fire from spreading further.  Ten people burned to death that night with four more grievously injured.  All were performers.  The Klondike Theater was lost, as was the neighboring Monarch and Harrigan & McPherson’s Saloons.  Two other buildings took severe damage, and only the heroic efforts of the firemen prevented the entire town from going up in flames.  It remains one of the more notable urban fires in Wisconsin history.

Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. The above photo is used with permission from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.