The deadliest shipwreck in history happened in Marion, Arkansas in 1865. Less than one percent of Americans have heard of the Sultana Shipwreck, a disaster believed to have killed up to 1,800 people. It’s being called one of the greatest forgotten moments in history.
In April of 1865, Union Soldiers were finally coming home after the Civil War. They were headed back to their families after four years of bloody conflict that tore apart the nation. But sadly, many of them would never make it home.
“Unfortunately, they would be betrayed by their own senior officers in the Army in Vicksburg,” says Sultana Expert, Dr. Louis Intres.
The story of the Sultana Paddle-wheel Steamboat begins with Lt. Reuben Hatch from Vicksburg, Mississippi. Greed caused him to overload the boat, with Captain J. Cass Mason.
“Seeing the opportunity to ferry hundreds of Union Soldiers to the north at a fee of $10 per officer and $5 dollars per soldier, he wanted as large a passenger load as he could get,” Intres says.
They even spread rumors that other steamboats were tainted with smallpox and the Sultana was the only one soldiers should travel on. Because of their bribery and kickback scheme, 2,400 people boarded a steamboat that had a capacity of 376.
It also had a ruptured boiler, that the captain knew about and ignored.
“It was inadequately repaired. It could explode at any time, and yet because of greed, because of money he would make by ferrying so many passengers, he overlooked these dangers,” says Intres
On April 27th at 2 o’clock in the morning, The Sultana Steamboat lit up the dark and cold Mississippi River. And then, an explosion.
“The initial explosion blew a hole 25-30 feet wide through three decks and the main cabin,” Intres explains.
The boiler exploded, causing two others to explode. The boat erupted into flames, killing hundreds immediately. Wails and cries could be heard as the steamboat began sinking. It was a night of horror and tragedy that would become the deadliest shipwreck in u.S. History. It’s estimated up to 1,800 people died. That’s more than on the Titanic.
And at the time, the disaster didn’t even make headlines.
“The telegraph was down in the south, and Abraham Lincoln had just been assassinated and the search for John Wilkes Booth filled the northern newspapers,” says Intres.
It eventually made news, but a newspaper shows it was buried, pages behind the coverage of Lincoln.
And after that, it was quickly forgotten.
“For more than 100 years, nothing was written or spoken or said or talked or included in history books of the story of the Sultana,” he explains.
It was a lost story, until now. Sultana Expert Dr. Louis Intres is working with everyone from historians to congressman to filmmakers who want this story to be told.
“It’s a historical cover-up. As some people in Hollywood have said, it has all of the makings of a blockbuster,” he says
Here in Arkansas, there is currently a small Sultana Museum in Marion, but they have much bigger plans.
“We’re embarking on an effort to build a major museum, which would be like the Titanic in Branson that will finally tell the story and give this steamboat and these 2,400 people their rightful place in American History,” Intres says.
The remains of the Sultana wreckage currently rest 37 feet beneath a soybean field in Marion.