Friday marks 150 years since tragedy struck on the historic ‘War Eagle’

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – Just north of Riverside Park, a piece of La Crosse’s maritime history lies below the surface.

Friday, May 15th marks 150 years since tragedy struck on the War Eagle.

In 1870 the sidewheel packet boat was preparing its voyage to St. Paul.

Passengers and freight were loaded onto the ship.

Among the items were wooden barrels filled with “Danforth’s Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid” – a kind of lamp oil.

Three of those barrels were leaking, and when the carpenter tried to fix them his lantern flared up, igniting the fluid.

Within an hour the boat was a total loss and the fire spread onto a barge, to the train depot, grain elevator, warehouse, and onto a train.

But the fire is only part of its history.

“It’s not just about the burning up of a boat. It’s about the stories of the people involved. Their struggle, their loss, and their heroism. Those are the things we should remember,” said War Eagle historian, Robert Taunt.

At least five people died and it was recorded as the largest fire in the Midwest at that time.

Taunt says there’s one crew member who proved to be a true hero but never got the recognition he deserved.

“One of the fellas, the barber of the boat, a black man from St. Louis, tried to rescue one of the young ladies from La Crosse. They both drowned, unfortunately. He never received any recognition for his heroism, and he was the only crew member that gave a life trying to save a passenger.”

Today, the War Eagle is settled 30 feet below the surface of the Black River.

To learn more about this important piece of La Crosse’s history, click here.Picture of the Day