Steamboat War Eagle Tragedy
On May 14, 1870, the "War Eagle", a sidewheel packet boat, arrived at La Crosse. She dropped off passengers at the city landing at State and Front streets, then proceeded north to the railroad depot on the Black River to take on freight and await the midnight train from Milwaukee. When the train arrived, passengers and freight were transferred to the "War Eagle" for transport to St. Paul, MN. Among the items loaded were wooden barrels filled with "Danforth's Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid" - a kind of lamp oil. While not explosive, it turned out to be quite flammable.
While loading the barrels onto the "War Eagle," it was reported to Capt. Thomas Cushing that one of the barrels was leaking. The Captain ordered the boat's carpenter to fix it. Soon, the barrel was ablaze as well as the ship's carpenter. He jumped into the water to extinguish the fire from his clothes. The barrel was rolled off the left side of the boat, a barge lay alongside, preventing the crew from rolling it into the water. Fire and black smoke rapidly spread to the wooden boat. Only five people are believed to have lost their lives as a result. However, many other buildings and trains were damaged, and freight lost as well as the steamboat "War Eagle."