War Eagle possibly succumbed to “non-explosive” lamp oil

Caroline Morris

Lanterns like this one, pulled from the wreckage of the steamboat War Eagle, were a welcome improvement over candles in the 1860s and 1870s.  If you had gone to a La Crosse store to buy some kerosene for your lantern at that time, Danforth’s Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid would have been one of your choices.  Its packaging declared that the fluid “gives a whiter, larger, and more brilliant light,” and “is the poor man’s blessing” due to its low price.  But it turned out that, while not technically “explosive,” the lamp oil would spontaneously ignite at room temperature without provocation. 

In the wee hours of May 15, 1870, a railroad depot, several warehouses, a loading dock, nine train cars, and the War Eagle caught fire and turned an area just north of downtown La Crosse into a conflagration.  At least six people died trying to escape it.  We can never know for certain what happened, but in later years a source familiar with the events claimed that barrels full of “Danforth’s Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid” were at the root of the tragedy.

An article in the La Crosse Evening Democrat on May 16, 1870, described the blaze as “sufficiently brilliant to cast a shadow, for miles, directly towards the moon.  The Mississippi River presented the appearance of an immense sea of blood.”  Unsurprisingly, there was a great deal of speculation about the origins of the fire, and about whom to blame.  Early accounts focused on the actions of a carpenter and his assistant, who had been repairing a leaking barrel of kerosene when the fire started.  The carpenter claimed that he had just completed his task when the lantern he was holding spontaneously burst into flames, igniting the leaked kerosene on the War Eagle’s deck, as well as the barrels themselves.

In spring 1870, Danforth’s oil was a relatively new product in an unregulated marketplace.  Without safety testing, manufacturers could experiment with and sell highly flammable, unstable oils.  New York City’s Board of Health conducted a review of Danforth’s Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid the same year that the War Eagle burned, and concluded that the New York-based product was no less than a “murderous oil.”  The people of La Crosse would have agreed.

This article was originally featured in the La Crosse Tribune.