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La Crosse, Wisconsin Steamer

War Eagle Fire & Sinking

May 14 & 15, 1870


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 letters.
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 money.

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 his apparel.

J. B. Shaw, Esq., of Milwaukee, who embarked on the War Eagle, after passing Saturday in Le Crosse, escaped in safety.

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 life.

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 asleep.

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 Captain Cushing; 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 face.

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 badly scorched.

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 wheat.

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 destroyed.

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 opened good.

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 destroyed.

Captain Moulton, 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 personal property.

Captain Thomas 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

Transcribed by Jenni Lanham.  Thank you, Jenni!



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 fate.

The body of the negro barber, Felix Spiller, was also found.  None others, we believe, have been found.  Several were severely hurt in jumping overboard.  Mrs. Campbell was hurt in the right arm and side, Mrs. Barkis was injured in the right hip an spine.

An elderly lady and an old gentleman from Kentucky, and the dock sweep are reported lost.....

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.  Frank Hubbard who was assisting in distributing the mail was obliged to take to the water.  His face was burned slightly.


We have no space in which to tell of individual escapes, heroism &c.  The officers are Tom. Cushing, Captain; Ed. Burridge, 1st Clerk; R. D. Button, 2nd Clerk, James Gray, Mate; James Martin and Joe La Point, Pilots; 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 the shore.

Evening Democrat, LaCrosse, WI 16 May 1870


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 drowned.

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 safety.

Otto Ewe lost 1,200 wheat stacks, which were lying at the depot, and Henry Helfach lost about 150.

Evening Democrat, LaCrosse, WI 17 May 1870


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 Mary Ulrich, 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 1870


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 1990


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