In the pre-dawn hours of April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana departed Memphis and was heading north on the Mississippi River, overcrowded with Union Army soldiers freed from prisoner of war camps, when its boilers exploded, setting the vessel on fire.
The wreck killed as many as 1,700 people, but events of the time, including the ending of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, overshadowed the tragedy.
Overlooked and forgotten, the remarkable story of the Sultana, which drifted across the river in flames and sank off the Arkansas banks, is little known today.
The Sultana Historical Preservation Society is working to spread the word with plans for a new museum in Marion, dedicated to the worst maritime catastrophe in U.S. history.
Opening in the fall of 2023, the Sultana Disaster Museum will inform visitors with interactive displays and tales of greed, corruption, a pet alligator, and heartbreaking struggles to survive. The state-of-the-art facility will replace the existing museum in Marion.
The new museum, located in the 1938 Marion School Auditorium-Gymnasium building, is being funded with grants from the state of Arkansas, federal government, and private and corporate donors, including HSB, a Hartford, Conn.-based specialty insurer.
Why would a Connecticut company be a founding sponsor of the Sultana Disaster Museum?
The connection dates to the sinking of the Sultana, which led in 1866 to the founding of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company and helped change the way we manage technology and equipment to prevent accidents.
In those days, the world ran on steam, although its properties were poorly understood. Safety controls were crude or lacking, and superstition often passed as science, with explosions sometimes blamed on spontaneous combustion or "demons in the boiler."
The Sultana's fire-tube boilers were constructed with a particularly dangerous design and materials, and a leak had been patched up only hours before the disaster.
There were other factors that placed the steamboat at risk. Although the Sultana was built to carry up to 376 passengers, its captain bribed Union officers to board hundreds more, increasing the fees he was paid.
The Sultana left Memphis overloaded with almost 2,000 Union soldiers paroled from the Cahaba and Andersonville prison camps, many of them weak from starvation and disease.
Another 150 crew members and civilians were also on the Sultana, including children and soldiers' wives, who had come to take their husbands home.
The big paddle-wheeler, three decks high and almost as long as a football field, was so top-heavy with passengers the captain feared they might capsize.
To make matters worse, heavy spring rains had flooded the Mississippi River, and the Sultana steamed upstream toward Cairo, Ill., against a strong current.
Suddenly, at 2 a.m., three of four boilers exploded, killing some of the sleeping passengers in the blast and crushing others under collapsing stacks and decks.
In the panic that followed, smoke, sparks, and flames flew upward as fires swept the wooden vessel. People burned to death and many drowned after jumping into the water or held on to floating debris and the tops of submerged trees.
There was chaos and confusion. Heroes and villains. Some were rescued, others escaped. One soldier, Pvt. Daniel William Lugenbeal of Ohio, killed the Sultana's alligator mascot and used the reptile's crate as a makeshift canoe.
A tobacco pipe with a carved 'gator stem, later presented to him as the man "saved by a[n] alligator," is part of the Sultana Disaster Museum collection.
The captain of the Sultana, James Cass Mason, whose actions led to the calamity, was last seen racing from deck to deck, tossing pieces of wreckage into the river to help the survivors stay afloat.
A passenger, Ann Annis of Wisconsin, was trying to follow her lieutenant husband and 7-year-old daughter over the side when she fell back on the boat and was left behind.
Once she finally dropped into the river, she was alone and badly burned; her body turned purple from the cold during nine hours in the water.
Ann was saved, but her husband and daughter drowned. A witness saw the young girl in her pink nightgown, clinging to a floating door. She slipped off and went under the water, her father diving after her. They didn't come up again.
We may never know how many died. Federal sources estimate 1,200 to 1,500 casualties, while the Library of Congress cites news reports of 1,400 to 1,700 dead, or more.
Dead bodies were spotted hundreds of miles downstream for months. Of the 50 women and children aboard the Sultana, only four or five women survived. It's believed all the children perished.
Communities on both sides of the river launched every boat that could float to help the survivors and hundreds of injured, most scalded, burned, or suffering from exposure or broken bones.
Captain Mason was missing and presumed dead; no one was ever officially held accountable.
The news of the Sultana disaster reached Hartford, where local businessmen were meeting to discuss the causes of boiler explosions after a series of deadly mishaps.
Boilers were exploding at the rate of one every four days, and members of the Polytechnic Club were eager to find ways to make steam power safer.
Boiler owners considered the failures "acts of God" and expected to lose one or two workers in accidents as part of doing business.
Two club members, Jeremiah Allen and Edward Reed, had a better idea and founded Hartford Steam Boiler, the first company in America devoted primarily to industrial safety.
Soon, the "Hartford Standards" became the specifications for the design, manufacture, and maintenance of steam boilers in the United States. They helped lead to national professional guidelines and state and local codes for boiler operations that are still in use and updated regularly.
HSB combined boiler inspections with insurance as an incentive for boiler owners to take better care of their equipment. The primary focus was on safety and loss prevention, and the financial guarantee was secondary, a new concept in insurance.
The same premise was later applied to electrically powered machinery and equipment, computers and microelectronics, and today's smart sensors, Artificial Intelligence, and the Internet of Things.
The Sultana tragedy was a catalyst for change. It helped transform the way we think about technology and equipment to prevent breakdowns and protect people and property.
As part of HSB's history since our beginnings 156 years ago, we have talked about the Sultana with employees, clients, and the public, so they understand our mission. What better way to honor the victims than to tell their stories, so a new generation of Americans will remember the Sultana.
Greg Barats is president and chief executive officer of HSB, a provider of specialty insurance, inspections, and technology services.