Wisconsin News

Sunken Treasure of La Crosse

LA CROSSE, Wis. - If you've ever walked through Riverside Park, you've passed a piece of La Crosse history.

You can't see it, but it's there -- 25-feet below the surface of the Black River.

On May 15, 1870, the nearly 300-ton steamboat War Eagle, carrying cargo and as many as 300 passengers, was docked.

That's when something went terribly wrong.

A lantern crashed into a leaky oil barrel.

"It started burning shortly after midnight and within an hour, it was gone. It lit up the sky well. The whole city, it looked like daylight outside," said La Crosse County Historical Society researcher George Italiano.


"The War Eagle is our Titanic. It was probably that big a piece of local news when it happened," said La Crosse County Historical Society curator Peggy Derrick.

Passengers like young socialite Mary Ulrich jumped overboard. She was one of five who died that night.

Fast-forward to 1979, when Onalaska man Dennis Brandt heard the ship calling to him from the bottom of the Black River.

"I spent 10 summers diving on the War Eagle. It was really exciting finding the artifacts," said Brandt in an interview with the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1995.

After about 300 hours of diving, Brandt had excavated more than 650 items buried under five-feet of silt with his bare hands.

He brought up everything from the engineer's tools, to a beam from the ship's hull, to the tiny porcelain hand of a doll.

"The old sword that I found, it was pretty badly deteriorated. But I remember finding that on the bow of the boat where it was in more shallow water," said Brandt.

Of the hundreds of items Brandt discovered, there was just one he returned to the wreckage.

"I dumped out that bag of stuff and here this old skull went rolling across the deck, and I thought, 'Oh my gosh,'" said Brandt. "My wife said that it was like robbing a grave and I thought, well, it seems kind of like it is."

"To find the remains of a poor person who had perished -- and I said to him, 'This really belongs back in its resting place. And he agreed. So he took it back and buried it with the War Eagle, and never came across it again," said his wife, Brenda Brandt.

The rest of the artifacts now have a permanent home.

Before Brandt died in 2012, he donated them to the La Crosse County Historical Society, which put them on display in Riverside Museum.

For the past few years, Derrick has been the artifacts' caretaker.

"They all come with stories. They're part of a story. We want our visitors to know that they're part of that same story. And I think that's the root of it, is linking it to stories and making the stories alive," said Derrick.

The sunken treasure of La Crosse -- the story of the War Eagle has been brought to the surface for future generations.

In 1988, with the passage of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, what Brandt had been doing became illegal. Divers can still legally go down there, as long as they don't take anything. So, the items Brandt excavated decades ago are likely to be the only artifacts from the ship we will ever have.

The Riverside Museum's War Eagle Display opens up by reservation on Thursday and Friday. It opens to everyone starting Saturday.

If you think this is the first time you've seen the War Eagle, think again. The next time you drive around downtown La Crosse, take a closer look at the street signs. You'll notice there's a little steamboat at the top. It's an image of the War Eagle.

You can also check out a mural of the War Eagle on Second Street in La Crosse.

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