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La Crosse County Historical Society discovers, collects, preserves, and shares the history of La Crosse County, Wisconsin.

Object Record

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Object Name Lantern
Catalog Number WE.2010.1.654
Description Lantern, complete with a handle. The burner is missing, but the glass and metal are still intact.
Collection LCHS War Eagle Collection
Provenance Excavated from the War Eagle by Dennis Brandt.
Material Glass/Metal
Dimensions H-24 cm
Height (in) 9.449
People Brandt, Dennis
Search Terms Featured in Things that Matter
War Eagle
Lantern
Steamboats
Archaeology
Underwater
Notes Featured in Things that Matter

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 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 published in the La Crosse Tribune.
Title: War Eagle possibly succumbed to 'non-explosive' lamp oil
Author: Caroline Morris
Publish Date: May 16, 2015

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 Rob 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)