Weekly Columns

There’s an event in our nation’s past that, though catastrophic and heartbreaking, hasn’t ever received the attention it truly deserves. For Arkansans, it should be something we learn about thoroughly and feel connected to perhaps more than most of the other dates and milestones we read in textbooks and hear about from educators. 

The affair, commonly referred to as the Sultana disaster, happened on the Mississippi River in the shadow of the end of the Civil War. It is often referred to as the “forgotten tragedy” and Congress has officially recognized it as the worst disaster in U.S. maritime history, including the sinking of the Titanic.

On April 27, 1865, just weeks after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, a 260-foot-long wooden steamboat with thousands of passengers aboard exploded, burned and sank into the Mississippi River just miles from Memphis on the Arkansas side of the river.

The vessel was overcrowded to begin with since it was only rated to carry about 376 people. Many of those onboard were recently released Union prisoners headed home. An estimated 1,200 people died as a result of this mishap.

In 1982, archeologists uncovered the Sultana’s remains under a soybean field. Ever since, there have been efforts to bring this incident and its repercussions back to the forefront after so many years of languishing in relative obscurity. 

The Sultana Historical Preservation Society has worked tirelessly to see to that. In 2011, the first public exhibit of Sultana-related artefacts was held at Arkansas State University. A few short years later, a small museum opened in Marion, Arkansas to help tell the harrowing story and invite further research.

With each step forward, the benefactors and champions of this cause have made significant progress toward ensuring the Sultana’s fate is forgotten no more. 

Now, an even larger goal is within sight and stands ready to formalize that mission by creating an institution that will last for generations and go a long way toward helping future young Arkansans learn of and remember what happened on a Civil War-era steamboat traveling through our backyard.

This month, the Sultana Disaster Museum will break ground on a new, permanent and modern home that will afford all visitors – from school groups to Civil War enthusiasts and others – the opportunity to intimately grasp the scope and magnitude of the Sultana’s demise and the human cost it carried.

It’s been an honor and pleasure to work alongside the supporters of this endeavor leveraging funding and expertise from all levels of government, including federal and state agencies and partners alongside the private sector because we know it is the successful formula to create investments that serve our communities, our economy and the public good. 

This facility will do so much to ensure the full story of the Sultana never stops being told while also deepening the appreciation and reverence for it among those who interact with its exhibits and artefacts for years to come.

Not only that, but it will appropriately create the space needed to place this tragedy in our nation’s history and memory where it belongs rather than as an historical footnote. Doing so honors the victims and helps push their legacies forward. 

Celebrating this next exciting chapter in the effort to help the Sultana disaster receive the attention and acknowledgement it is due is so important for many reasons, including the fellowship it has fostered in the community and the economic benefits it can offer.