Somewhere, somebody has a claim to some very old luggage sitting at the bottom of the Black River at La Crosse. All they need to prove their ownership is to produce a baggage slip from the steamer War Eagle, dated May 14, 1870, for item No. 10.
That date was the evening that the Steamboat War Eagle burned and sank at the riverbank just north of today’s Riverside Park. Along with the boat, the fiery disaster destroyed the docks, the Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad depot, several freight warehouses and grain elevators, and a passenger train nearby. At least five people died.
In addition, most of the personal effects of the approximately 40 passengers were left behind during the frenzied escape from the burning boat. The staterooms on steamboats were small, so most belongings had been checked and stored in baggage compartments. Oscar Topliff, the vessel’s assistant baggage manager, saved some luggage under his care that night, but not that of at least one unlucky passenger.
This brass tag was strapped to that property. Stamped WAR EAGLE 10, the 1¾-inch high tag had a slot for a leather strap that Topliff had attached to the baggage, a common practice on steamboats and railroads of the day.
Sixty-one years later, in 1931, the Black River dropped to a record low stage, and many local residents were able to wade into the water and pick souvenirs from the charred remains of the War Eagle. This tag was one of them.
Who knows what treasures from 1870 it represents? Perhaps it was an immigrant trunk full of clothing, books and some precious mementos, or perhaps a craftsman’s toolbox. Or a traveling salesman’s patent medicines. Whatever it was, it’s still waiting to be picked up, in damaged condition, at the bottom of the Black River at La Crosse.
The La Crosse County Historical Society has hundreds of additional items salvaged from the War Eagle on exhibit at the Riverside Museum in Riverside Park. The museum is open from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.