Bella Mac Riverboat, AKA Bella Danger
(written by Scott Brouwer, Archives Staff)
On a Saturday afternoon in July of 1886, the rafting steamer Bella Mac, owned by McDonald Brothers, caught fire at her moorings at the foot of Main St. The loss was estimated at $8000, of which $6000 would be covered by insurance. Dense clouds of smoke could be seen, but as the boat was hidden by buildings, it took a bit for the citizens of La Crosse to realize what was happening.
An article in the Daily Republican & Leader from July 19, 1886, claims, “The boat was enveloped in flames and the upper works were doomed in less than three minutes.” The fire caught in the forward part of the boat and is supposed to have started from sparks from a neighboring tugboat named Zada. The Bella Mac had just finished her season’s work and was stripped to go into winter quarters, so luckily no one was on board. Though a portion of the hull was saved, at that point the boat was considered almost a total loss.
(Photo courtesy of Area Research Center, Murphy Library, UW-La Crosse)
The fire in La Crosse was not the first nor would it be the last disaster to strike the Bella Mac. On April 7, 1882, while coming up the Mississippi River from Dubuque, the engineer of the Bella Mac fell asleep. When he awoke, the boilers were red hot. He opened the fresh-water valve, which caused the boiler to explode. Nine lives were lost, and eight others were badly scalded.
According to Patrick J. Rash, author of Bella Danger: Steamboat Disasters on the Mississippi River, a great deal of controversy and several lawsuits followed; the wreck was raised and refitted. Following the fire in La Crosse in 1886, the Bella Mac was AGAIN rebuilt and finally sank for good after hitting the Merchants Bridge at St. Louis. A crewman was quoted as saying, “It isn’t so much losing my clothing, but I don’t like the idea of a mermaid trying on my pants.” This non sequitur seems to be a fitting eulogy for a doomed riverboat that would posthumously be named the Bella Danger.