Sultana museum to receive FedEx gift

Artist rendering of a renovated gymnasium that would house the Sultana Disaster Museum in in Marion. (Special to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

The Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion announced that FedEx would be making the $1 million contribution it pledged in November 2021 toward the capital campaign to build a new museum, after the Sultana Historical Preservation Society met the conditions the company had set for the donation.

The Sultana was a steamboat that the U.S. government hired to transport Union soldiers freed from prison camps in Alabama and Georgia up the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865. The steamboat, which was designed to carry only 376 passengers, was overloaded with more than 2,000 people after the captain bribed Union officers to board far more in order to increase his payment.

The boat's boilers exploded in the early morning hours, setting the Sultana on fire and killing as many as 1,800 in what is the deadliest maritime disaster in American history.

The disaster, which is relatively unknown today, happened just days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The money will go toward renovation of the museum's new location -- a 17,000-square-foot school gymnasium that was built in 1939 -- and exhibition fabrication and installation costs.

FedEx made the commitment on the condition that the Sultana Historical Preservation Society secured $9 million more in pledges and donations by May 31. The society was able to raise $9,296,594 by the deadline.

The museum relocation and renovation project has attracted a plethora of contributors and supporters since it was began in 2020. The capital campaign received a $508,910 grant from the Delta Regional Authority last October, and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchison pledged $750,000 in state funding over two years toward the project in April 2021.

Members of Arkansas' congressional delegation introduced a bill in both houses of Congress this year that would direct the U.S. Department of Treasury to mint gold and silver coins in honor of the disaster.

A portion of the proceeds from the coins would go to the museum. Both bills have yet to pass committee in either house.

"The million-dollar donation from FedEx comes with special significance as it completes the museum's $10 million dollar goal for total construction and exhibit costs," wrote Wyly Bigger, the museum's project director, in a news release.

The new museum will feature "state-of-the-art interactive exhibits, an orientation theater, a research library, a classroom for educational programming, and an auditorium for community events, in addition to administrative offices."

Bidding for the renovations is expected to start this month, and the new museum is slated to open in 2025 -- the museum's 10-year anniversary. This is later than originally expected -- the Sultana Historical Preservation Society said in October 2022 that the new museum would be ready to welcome visitors by the end of 2023.