John Fogleman, who served 26 years as a circuit judge in east Arkansas, walks me into an old gymnasium near downtown Marion and lays out his vision for the future.
Fogleman is part of a group trying to raise $10 million. Some of that money will be used to turn a gym built by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s into a state-of-the-art museum that will attract history buffs from across the country. The rest will be used as an endowment to fund future operations.
"We've already raised $3.4 million," Fogleman says. "And that was done during a pandemic."
The gym was once a showplace in the Arkansas Delta. In 1939, LSU's basketball team came up from Baton Rouge to play Southwestern of Memphis (now Rhodes) there. Fogleman remembers high school shop classes being taught in the building.
"We built furniture in here," he says. "We're giving new life to a historic structure."
I've written before about Marion's small Sultana Disaster Museum. It tells the story of the deadliest maritime disaster in U.S. history. The disaster occurred April 27, 1865, when the steamboat Sultana exploded.
As the Civil War wound down, Southern prison camps began releasing Union prisoners. Thousands of freed prisoners were sent to Camp Fish near Vicksburg, Miss., and later loaded onto boats headed north.
The Sultana was licensed to carry 376 passengers. A combination of greed and corruption led to almost 2,000 soldiers being packed onto the boat. They were treated like cattle but seemed happy to finally be going home. The festive mood changed at 2 a.m. on April 27 when massive boilers exploded. The boat had been headed to Cairo, Ill.
The wooden boat, which once had carried freight and passengers between New Orleans and St. Louis, had taken on 1,000 bushels of coal at 1 a.m. at Hopefield, just across the river from Memphis. An hour after leaving Hopefield, three of the four boilers exploded. Hundreds of men were killed instantly. Many more later drowned.
Survivor William Warner wrote: "I found myself floundering about in the water while the screams and cries of the injured and those who were unable to swim could be heard on all sides."
Another survivor, James Kimberline, said: "The water around the boat for a distance of 20 to 40 feet was a solid, seething mass of humanity clinging to one another."
Because there was so much news taking place in April 1865, little was written about the disaster. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee had surrendered in Virginia on April 9. Less than a week later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington. On April 26, Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth was captured. Those events dominated the headlines.
The New York Times devoted only three lines to a disaster that resulted in the deaths of at least 1,200 people.
In April, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced that the state will contribute $750,000 to the effort. On a day when more than 100 business and civic leaders turned out, the governor said: "How can you understand the history of the Mississippi River without coming here to learn about the Sultana? This has never gotten the attention it should have received."
Once the museum opens, it will mark the culmination of a decades-long effort to honor those who died. In 1885, Sultana survivors began meeting with the hope that the disaster wouldn't be forgotten. The last reunion was in 1933.
In 1987, a Knoxville, Tenn., lawyer named Norman Shaw wanted to determine if there was still interest in the disaster. Dozens of people turned out at Knoxville's Mount Olive Cemetery, and the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends was founded.
In 2011, the first public exhibition of Sultana artifacts took place on the Arkansas State University campus at Jonesboro. In 2013, the History Channel presented the first professionally produced Sultana documentary.
The Sultana Historical Preservation Society Inc. was formed in 2013, and the current museum opened two years later near the Crittenden County Courthouse at Marion. In 2016, the Travel Channel's "Mysteries at the Museum" aired a Sultana segment. The next year, a 90-minute documentary titled "Remember the Sultana" was released.
In 2019, the Arkansas Legislature established April 27 each year as Sultana Remembrance Day. That year also saw an exhibition of Sultana artifacts at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
Fogleman and others working on the project are hopeful that an expanded facility (the current museum has 1,000 square feet; the new museum will have 23,000) will be an integral part of a future tourism corridor that will see people stay at the high-rise hotel now under construction at Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and then head north to visit the Sultana museum, the model Delta town of Wilson, the Johnny Cash boyhood home at Dyess, and the Cold War museum that's being developed on the grounds of the former Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville.
The Marion Advertising and Promotion Commission has pledged $500,000 toward the project, while Sultana Historical Preservation Society members have pledged another $150,000. Studies funded by the society estimate the museum will attract 50,000 visitors each year.
"That could lead to additional shops and restaurants downtown," Fogleman says. "I can see people spending an hour in the museum, an hour shopping and another hour eating out. The bulk of the money raised so far has come from this area, but we're reaching out to foundations across the country who take an interest in Civil War sites. We'll never know if we don't ask."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.