5 Star Stories: Marion, Ark. museum honors lives lost in Sultana disaster

Updated: May. 18, 2021 at 11:27 PM CDT
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MARION, Ark. (WMC) - It’s called the forgotten tragedy, the SS Sultana explosion on the Mississippi River just upstream from Memphis.

The city of Marion, Arkansas paid homage to the 150th anniversary of the event with a museum dedicated to the hundreds of souls who died in the greatest maritime disaster in United States history. That museum is the focus of this 5 Star Story.

The Sultana Disaster Museum is located just off the main drag in the town of 12,345 residents near the courthouse and the corner of Washington Street and Cypress Drive. It might be small, but the story it’s shared since 2015 is amazing in its size and scope.

You might wonder why the town of Marion took on this story. According to Tracy Brick, the managing director of the Sultana Disaster Museum Project, said it’s because Marion is the place where the Sultana actually sank and drifted onto shore.

The SS Sultana, a Mississippi river steamboat paddle-wheeler, was headed to St. Louis from New Orleans when it exploded, burned, and sank on the Arkansas bank of the Mississippi River April 27, 1865. It happened just 18 days after the civil war ended. Between 1,500 and 1,800 passengers were killed when three of the ship’s four boilers exploded in the dark of night just a few miles upriver from Memphis.

Despite the number of casualties, the disaster went virtually unnoticed.

“This was in April. The war had just ended, also President Lincoln had been assassinated. His assassin had been caught, Lincoln’s funeral train was crossing the U.S. It was just a very bleak time in the United States,” explained Brick.

Also, everything was in upheaval in southern states from the government to systems of communication and transportation, which also played into the Sultana tragedy. Most of the passengers aboard the boat at the time of the disaster were Union soldiers just released from Confederate prison camps who were trying to get home at long last.

“Sherman had destroyed the majority of the railroads in the south. So, those in Andersonville, Georgia literally had to cross two and a half states,” said Rosalind O’Neal, the museum manager and tour guide. “Once they got to Vicksburg, they would have been given clean clothes, a hot meal, and a medical exam. If they were too debilitated, they would have been put in the hospital. But Kym, you need to remember, during the Civil War, men from a community would band together and start their own troop. Then, they would go off and join a larger company. So, these men we’re talking about had joined together, fought together, survived the deprivation and horrors of the prison camp and they were going home.”

When the Sultanta left Vicksburg, it was crammed full of sick and frail passengers stacked in almost every available space on deck.

“They laid them on the deck. Those men they laid on the deck shouldn’t have been on the boat,” claimed O’Neal.

Historians say there were more than 2,000 passengers on the boat that had a license to carry only 376.

“There were no inspections, no specifications. We all complain about rules and regulations, but they’re there for a reason.” The Sultana Disaster Museum not only honors the lives lost but, also the heroes who sprang into action that fateful night,” said O’Neal.

As Brick recalled, “There were people that were in Hopeville, which is the original settlement of Marion, that lived along the banks. The names for that family are Barton and Fogelman. There was also the family Reeves and those people still live here in Marion. Actually, Mayor Frank Fogelman is a descendent of those people who helped rescue the soldiers.”

But because the Union Army confiscated all the boats along the river during the war, public and private, O’Neal said the settlers had to tie together logs and float out to the struggling passengers to help rescue them. The Sultana burned down to the water line and was eventually covered over in silt. The river channel changed from then to now and what little was left of the steamboat now sits beneath about 30 feet of farmland.

Since many of the passengers never made it off the boat that night, it’s regarded by the state as a burial site. There’s a lot more to be learned and seen in the 1,200 square foot museum, including passenger pictures and artifacts, but space is limited.

“We are so cramped for space here. We have a lot of things in storage that we can’t display. You notice a lot of things on the floor,” explained O’Neal.

Plans for a bigger Sultana Disaster Museum are underway in the center of Marion on Military Road inside a historic Works Progress Administration (WPA) gymnasium built in 1936.

According to Brick, “What that will mean is that at we will be able to spread out, first of all, the gym itself,” said Brick. “Now, it’s about 18,000 square feet and with a small addition, I think we’re looking at 22,000 square feet. It’s also going to be an interactive museum.”

Right now, roughly 1,200 people a year visit the museum from across the country. But with the expansion there could be more.

“We are looking at a forecast of 50,000 annual visitors a year and in a town like Marion of 13,000, almost 13,000, an additional 50,000 people coming into our city will absolutely change the face of Marion,” said Brick.

The new museum will hopefully open by the end of 2023 but, for now, the little museum is ready to guide you through the human story of the Sultana disaster, a story too important to be lost forever.

“It’s such an important part of the history of the entire country. It’s important Civil War history. It’s important Mississippi River history. It’s important regional Delta Memphis history. Also, there were so many lives that were lost on that boat that have just been forgotten,” exclaimed Brick.

For more information about the Sultana Disaster Museum or the campaign, click here.

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