The War Eagle
The War Eagle Steamboat was one of the seven steamboats of The Grand Excursion. The War Eagle was in service for 16 years. The steamboat War Eagle was ordered by Captain Daniel Smith Harris and built at Fulton, Ohio, near Cincinnati during the winter of 1853-1854. She was a sidewheel packet, with 219 feet of hull and 225 feet of overall length, 29 feet hull beam and rated at 296 tons. The War Eagle was painted a brilliant white and a golden eagle with wings spread was placed upon the top of the pilot house. She had three boilers and was constructed to be a fast boat. The capacity of the steamboat could exceed more than 300 people. The War Eagle served her time during the Civil War just as many other steamboats. She ferried many troops, cannons, muskets, gunpowder and supplies to aid in the war effort. The War Eagle also carried volunteers for Company B of the Second Wisconsin Infantry. In 1870, another steamboat Buckeye was supposed to transport barrels of Danforth's Petroleum Fluid in April. The captain decided not to and left the cargo sitting on the dock. The War Eagle ended up transporting the petroleum instead. What happened next is unclear, but the barrels and an accident with a lantern ended up starting a fire. There were five casualties from the fire and the steamboat was lost. The final resting place of the War Eagle is in the Black River at La Crosse, many of the artifacts have been recovered and preserved for public view in Riverside Museum (410 East Veterans Memorial Drive, La Crosse, WI.)
Information from: 'A Brief History of the Steamboat War Eagle 1854-1870' Complied by Robert Taunt, La Crosse County Historical Society. May 15, 2000
The War Eagle Collection at LCHS totals over 650 items, this collection brings with it memories of a terrible tragedy: the sinking of the Wisconsin steamer War Eagle in 1870. This sinking comprises only part of the history that comes along with these captivating artifacts, however. The tale of how they were retrieved from the water and eventually found their way into the Riverside Museum is just as fascinating.
In 1979, Dennis Brandt, an Onalaska citizen with a passion for scuba diving, decided to dive the wreck of the War Eagle, extremely curious about what artifacts might be waiting below the surface. Since there were no permits necessary to dive the wreck at that time and he didn't want to wait around for others to take an interest, he decided to do the job himself.
During the ten summers that he investigated the waters around the War Eagle, Dennis found many artifacts, each with its own unique story. The first was an old whiskey bottle, broken but still an amazing find which energized him about the whole project. Soon he was discovering many more equally amazing artifacts. He found a number of other bottles, as well as nails, dishes, lanterns, and even a sword. He also found a variety of silverware labeled with the names of six different steamboats. It was always murky in the water by the War Eagle, so there were quite a few times that he wasn't sure what he had found while probing the silt until he had resurfaced and could look it over. This little problem once resulted in Dennis bringing up what he felt certain was a teapot; he discovered upon surfacing that it was a human skull. Dennis returned it to the War Eagle, as he felt that it was the skull's burial site.
In 1988, restrictions were placed on the location, so he decided to give up his hobby. He then loaned the artifacts he'd recovered to the LCHS because he firmly believed that they should stay in La Crosse, where they were put to rest. In 2012, Dennis donated the artifacts from the War Eagle to LCHS.
Information from: Past, Present, & Future (LCHS Publication Volume 34, No. 1, 2013)
Some of these artifacts are also now available for view in our online collections: http://lchshistory.pastperfectonline.com/