La Crosse, WI Steamer WAR EAGLE Fire & Sinking, May 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.