Crosse, Wisconsin Steamer
War Eagle Fire & Sinking
14 & 15, 1870
THE FIRE AT LA CROSSE.
Full Particulars – A Number of Lives Lost – The
Pecuniary Damage $250,000.
For the La Crosse Republican (Extra), May 15.
On Saturday night, or about a quarter to 1
o’clock Sunday morning, within an hour after the
arrival at La Crosse of the passenger and mail
train from Milwaukee, and the transfer of its
passengers, baggage, and mails on board the
steam packet War Eagle, lying at the La
Crosse Railroad wharf, and about to leave for
St. Paul, a barrel of gasoline caught fire on
that steamer, while the men were driving the
hoops to prevent leakage of the oil. Some insist
that a spark of fire from the cold-chisel or
hoops ignited the oil; others sat that the
bottom of a lantern or lamp was broken in the
immediate proximity. Unsuccessful efforts were
made to get the barrel out and roll it overboard
into the river.
One empty barge was attached to the steamer.
The latter had miscellaneous freight, with kegs
of powder. In less time than the facts can be
narrated, the War Eagle was enveloped in
flames. Of the actual loss of life it is
difficult at present to make any accurate
statement. There were seventy-seven kegs of
gunpowder in the boat’s magazine.
Some rushed from the boat to the water,
barges, and wharf, without attempting to save
anything but their lives.
Messrs. Frank Hubbard and
Dr. Sam Bugh
were engaged in sorting the up-river mail
matter, in one of the forward state-rooms
assigned for that purpose, and barely had time
to get ashore, without saving any of the mails
of which over a ton from La Crosse, and from the
South and East, was on board and destroyed. Dr.
Bugh saved the money packages and registered
Mr. Hubbard effected his escape by jumping from
the front main-deck into a wagon that was swung
up over the fore-castle, as he found it
impossible to get down by the cabin and regular
stairway, which were so full of smoke as to
suffocate any one who would attempt to grope
through their darkness. Dr. Bugh fortunately
found the stairway, he being familiar with the
construction of the boat.
The clerk of the War Eagle,
C. Burrage, had
no time or opportunity to save the books or
passenger list of the boat, but saved the boat’s
The express messenger was not able to save
anything. The loss of the express company is
estimated at from $10,000 to $15,000.
One gentleman, who did not retire to bed, but
sat up to enjoy the beautiful night, hurried to
his state room as soon as the alarm was given,
and brought out some things, which he threw into
a chair in the main cabin, and returned to his
room to get his hand bag; but, when he reached
the cabin, the lights were out or smothered by
the smoke, and the fire was coming up through
the floor where he left and lost a portion of
J. B. Shaw, Esq.,
of Milwaukee, who embarked on the War Eagle,
after passing Saturday in Le Crosse, escaped in
One large woman, of about 200 pounds weight,
escaped by sliding down from the cabin-deck to
the rudder, from which she was extricated by a
small boat, after struggling severely for her
From the difficulty of escape experienced by
those who were up and measurably prepared for
the emergency, the most painful conjectures are
formed in regard to all who were in bed and
About thirty passengers were transferred from
the midnight train to Milwaukee to the War
Eagle, besides the passengers who went
aboard from La Crosse, and those who came up
from the lower ports on the steamer. Of those
who went on board from La Crosse, one young
lady, who was reported safe, is missing. She was
Miss Mary Ulrich,
she accomplished niece of
Alderman John Ulrich,
editor of the Nord Stern. She was going
to Fountain City to visit some friends. Miss
Ulrich, we learn by one of the stewards,
occupied state-room “A.” on the starboard side,
being the first state-room in the ladies’ cabin
as one entered from the gentlemen’s or front
cabin; and her death, after her reported safety,
brings grief to her relatives and a large number
of devoted friends.
One elderly and heavy gentleman from
Kentucky, who occupied stateroom No. 8, on the
starboard side of the boat, is supposed to have
been burned. He was going to St. Paul in pursuit
of pleasure, and intended to visit Northern
Minnesota on a fishing and shooting excursion.
Thirteen cabin passengers from lower ports
took supper on the War Eagle Saturday
evening three of whom paid for their tickets,
because they had reached their place of
destination before supper time. This would leave
then “through cabin passengers” on board before
receiving passengers at La Crosse, of whom it is
estimated about thirty arrived on the midnight
train. This would make about forty cabin
passengers from the South and East. Besides the
cabin passengers, there were, on the lower deck,
a score or two of deck passengers, some of whom
were German and Norwegian immigrants, the most
of whom were, doubtless, saved.
During the fire on the steamer, an explosion
took place accompanied by a terrible concussion,
which was felt throughout the city. Some of the
crew think it was a keg of powder in the rear of
the boat, and between the two decks. Others are
of the opinion it was the gasoline.
We have conversed with the ship carpenter of
the War Eagle,
W. T. Bennett, of Viroqua (son of
John M. Bennett, Esq.,
of Hillsboro, Wis., who lost an arm by injuries
received during the tornado that visited Viroqua
in 1865), and learn that he was driving the
hoops close on the leaky gasoline barrels, in
accordance with orders from
and Mr. Bennett attributes the fire to the
ignition of the gas arising from the cask to the
light of the lantern, which was exploded. Mr.
Bennett was slightly injured by fire on his
The steamers Keokuk and Mollie
Mohler, which were lying alongside of the
War Eagle when the fire broke out, barely
escaped by having steam enough at the time to
get out of the way. Both of these boats were
The wharf shed between the War Eagle
and the railroad depot communicated the fire to
the depot, and soon swung around to the grain
elevator, consuming both of these large
buildings and their contents. There were in the
lower warehouse, on the south end of the depot,
between forty and fifty tons of merchandise for
La Crosse and various points on the river. In
the upper warehouse, or north end of the depot,
there was little or no freight stored. On the
dock were about twenty reapers and little
miscellaneous freight. In the elevator there
were between five and six thousand bushels of
About 100 tons of miscellaneous freight were
on board the War Eagle.
The empty barge Webb, which the
Keokuk had just brought down from the
boat-yard to the War Eagle, was
Nothing outside of the two iron safes in the
depot was saved, and the loss of books, records
[illegible] cannot be estimated.
Railroad and steamboat tickets, to the extent
of nearly a quarter of a million dollars,
representing nearly all the principal lines in
the United States, were also consumed.
The Cashier’s safe at the railroad depot has
been opened, and Mr.
Rockwood found its contents in good
order. The safe of
Captain Moulton, the agent of the M.
& St. P. Railroad, is out of the water, and
The Fire Department of La Crosse was promptly
on hand, and at work within fifteen minutes
after the top of the bell, and first attempted
to save the elevator; but finding that a
hopeless task, and the fire driving them from
their position, they directed their efforts
toward saving the express passenger train, which
arrived at midnight, and by their efforts the
two finest cars belonging to the company were
saved. A second-class coach, the mail, express,
and baggage car were consumed. Six freight cars,
which had just been unloaded, were also
who was in Milwaukee on Saturday, reached La
Crosse Sunday Morning at 8 o’clock. He was, we
regret to state, unfortunate enough to lose
$25,000 worth of salt, besides some other
Cushing, and the officers and crew of
the War Eagle, are entitled to great praise for
their noble exertions to save the lives of
passengers, and none saved any clothes except
such as were on their backs.
The total value of property destroyed cannot
be less than a quarter of a million dollars.
Chicago Tribune, Chicago, IL 17 May 1870
Jenni Lanham. Thank you,
LOSS OF LIFE
There are five passengers known to have been
drowned, and as the books were destroyed, it is
impossible to get the correct names.
Miss Ulrich, a
niece of John Ulrich
of the Nord Stern, perished in the river
and her body was found yesterday. This is
the saddest part of all.
Miss Ulrich was
18 years of age, an educated, accomplished lady,
and was on her way up to to be present at the
nuptials of her sister yesterday at Alma.
The whole community was grief stricken at her
The body of the negro barber,
was also found. None others, we believe,
have been found. Several were severely
hurt in jumping overboard.
was hurt in the right arm and side,
was injured in the right hip an spine.
An elderly lady and an old gentleman from
Kentucky, and the dock sweep are reported
Something like a half ton of mail on the boat
for points up the river every ounce of which was
burned. Sam Bugh,
the mail agent, who was in the office and had
barely time to secure his money packages and
escape by the gangway to the shore.
who was assisting in distributing the mail was
obliged to take to the water. His face was
We have no space in which to tell of
individual escapes, heroism &c. The
officers are Tom.
1st Clerk; R. D.
Button, 2nd Clerk,
James Gray, Mate;
and Joe La
Thomas Connelly and
Thomas Townsened, Engineers, all of
whom and especially the Captain, did their whole
duty in striving to get every person safely to
Evening Democrat, LaCrosse, WI 16 May
It has been stated that there were no
passengers on the lower deck of the steamer, but
this statement is contradicted by
Andrew Botten who was a a deck
passenger and had his wife and two small
children with him. They were going to
Reed's Landing, Minnesota and had all their
worldly goods with them, including a cow, or
which Mr. Botten paid fifty dollars the day
previous. These persons barely escaped
with their lives, and Mr. Botten states that
there were quite a number on the lower deck with
him who endeavored to save their property, and
he says he is certain they were either burned or
A good deal of credit is due to
Mr. Oscar Topliff,
assistant baggage master at the depot for saving
every parcel of baggage that had been entrusted
to his care. The baggage checks, of which
there were immense number, were all destroyed.
In the connection, it is perhaps permissible to
state that it is very strange that only a few
books, and those of the least importance were
saved. As we understand it, the depot was
well provided with watchmen,, and the time
between the burning of the boat and the depot
was sufficient for two men to have carried out
every book and conveyed them to a place of
lost 1,200 wheat stacks, which were lying at the
depot, and Henry
Helfach lost about 150.
Evening Democrat, LaCrosse, WI 17 May
Another Body Found. -- The body of a
stout built man with light brown whiskers was
found near the scene of the War Eagle
disaster on Wednesday Morning. It was the
body of James Greene,
who has a mother living at Dubuque, and was
buried this afternoon at La Crosse Cemetery.
Large Funeral.--The large funeral
procession of the friends of the lamented
who was droned after jumping from the burning
steamer War Eagle, took place on
Wednesday Morning; and evinced a profound
feeling of grief and respect in this community.
It was a solemn event; and the last sad tribute
of affectional regard was impressive and
appropriate to the occasion.
Daily Republican, La Crosse, WI 18 May
Newspapers reported in the weeks after the
fire that there were seven known victims.
Some say only five were confirmed dead, but
other accounts suggest the number was greater.
At least one person missing and presumed
drowned was Sanford
McBrayer, a Kentucky bank president
who had a stateroom on the War Eagle.
Friends and relatives offered a reward for the
recovery of his remains.
LaCrosse Tribune, LaCrosse, WI 17 Apr
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