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Accidents, Disasters, and Murder

PrimaryFlood Plain Information on Mississippi River and Tributaries in Vicinity of La Crosse, Wisconsin / United States. Army. Corps of Engineers. St. Paul District., 1970.

History Repeats Itself, Evelyn Hartley

Evelyn Hartley was a 15 year old high school student who disappeared from a home on La Crosse's south side during a babysitting job in Oct. 1953. Evidence suggested that Evelyn was taken against her will, but despite diligent efforts on behalf of the police, sheriff and other law enforcement agencies, this case has never been solved.

History Repeats Itself, "J.S." Fire

On June 25, 1910, the excursion Steamboat “J. S.” burned and sank near Victory, Vernon County, with close to 1000 people on board. The trip left from Lansing, Iowa, and was bound for La Crosse, Wis., 30 miles up the Mississippi River. At 6 p.m. the “J. S.” left La Crosse to make her return trip.

Fire was detected and the pilot steered the boat toward shore as the passengers panicked. Within two minutes of the ringing of the fire bell, Pilot George Nichols pulled the “J. S.” alongside Bad Axe Island where crew members pulled out the gangplank for passengers to exit. In the end, two people were killed, including a man held in the boat’s hold for being disruptive and intoxicated. The boat burned and sank about 300 feet from shore.

History Repeats Itself, "James Malbon" Explosion

James Malbon, a La Crosse steamboat captain, was piloting a new steamboat named for him when a flaw in the boiler caused it to explode on July 30, 1872, near North McGregor, Iowa. At the time of the accident, the 29 year-old captain was in the pilot house and was killed in the explosion. According to newspaper accounts, eight people were killed or lost, 13 saved and four were listed as wounded. The official inspector’s report said eight of the crew were killed and five injured.

The cost of construction of the 120 ton boat was $14,000 and it was built for the Keator Lumber Company. This explosion caused a stir as raft boats, such as the “James Malbon,” were more likely to explode than the more powerful packet boats. In the end, inspectors determined that the cause of the accident was great recklessness and carelessness on the part of W. Harvey Pierce, second engineer, on watch at the time. His license was revoked. The engines were salvaged and later placed in the Robert Ross built in 1873.

History Repeats Itself, Onalaska Church Murders

On the morning of February 7, 1985, Bryan Stanley, 29, shot and killed Father John Rossiter, lay minister Ferdinand Roth and parish custodian William Hammes at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Onalaska. Stanley had a deep interest in religion and when picked up by police near the crime scene he told officers that he was Elijah. He was allegedly upset that Father Rossiter allowed girls to read the Scriptures during Mass as the pope authorized. In the end, Stanley was judged insane and not legally responsible for the slayings.

Stanley is still being held in the state’s mental health facility. Bryan Stanley’s mother, Mary, was successful in 1996 in helping to change Wisconsin law to include a “fifth standard” for commitment to allow families of mentally ill adults to seek help through an involuntary commitment process for a person who is unable or unwilling to seek help on his or her own.

History Repeats Itself, Terry A. Dolowy Murder

One of the Coulee Region’s unsolved murders is that of 24 year-old Terry A. Dolowy of Barre Mills, La Crosse County, Wisconsin. On February 14, 1985, Dolowy was reported missing from her Bostwick Valley Trailer Court mobile home by her boyfriend Russell Lee. Days later, on Feb. 18, passersby found her headless, burning body near a culvert on Mohawk Valley Road in Vernon County. Her head and her white poodle Suzie were never recovered. No one has yet been convicted as her killer.

History Repeats Itself, "War Eagle" Tragedy

On May 14, 1870, the “War Eagle”, a sidewheel packet boat, arrived at La Crosse. She dropped off passengers at the city landing at State and Front streets, then proceeded north to the railroad depot on the Black River to take on freight and await the midnight train from Milwaukee. When the train arrived, passengers and freight were transferred to the "War Eagle" for transport to St. Paul, MN. Among the items loaded were wooden barrels filled with “Danforth’s Non-Explosive Petroleum Fluid” – a kind of lamp oil. While not explosive, it turned out to be quite flammable.

While loading the barrels onto the “War Eagle,” it was reported to Capt. Thomas Cushing that one of the barrels was leaking. The Captain ordered the boat’s carpenter to fix it. Soon, the barrel was ablaze as well as the ship’s carpenter. He jumped into the water to extinguish the fire from his clothes. The barrel was rolled off the left side of the boat, a barge lay alongside, preventing the crew from rolling it into the water. Fire and black smoke rapidly spread to the wooden boat. Only five people are believed to have lost their lives as a result. However, many other buildings and trains were damaged, and freight lost as well as the steamboat “War Eagle.”

History Repeats Itself, Weibel & Frydenlund Murders

The slain bodies of Suzzette Frydenlund, 29, her mother, Celia Weibel, 55, and her stepfather, Leroy Weibel, were found in the Weibels’ mobile home in the Brookview Mobile Home Court between La Crosse and Coon Valley on September 26, 1992. Frydenlund’s two children, a 6 year-old girl and a 2 year-old boy, were in the mobile home at the time of the murders but found unharmed. Suzzette Frydenlund’s husband, James Frydenlund, 34, of Minneapolis, MN, was acquitted of the crimes.

True Tales of La Crosse : Unusual Stories from Old Newspapers of La Crosse, Wisconsin
compiled and edited by Douglas Connell (La Crosse, Wis. : D. Connell), 1994

Compiled from old La Crosse newspapers, this popular book brings together over 200 interesting, unusual and bizarre stories from La Crosse's past not deemed suitable for a general history book about the city. The chapter topics are animal kingdom, children, domestic disasters, fun & games, ghosts, grief & sorrow, naughty folks, odds & ends, transportation, weather.

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Welcome to La Crosse History Unbound. Learn more about La Crosse County, history through these digitized collections from La Crosse Public Library and Murphy Library, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.