Ill-fated "Sultana," Helena, Arkansas, April 27, 1865.
Ill-fated "Sultana," Helena, Arkansas, April 27, 1865.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division - Source
License: Public Domain

Destruction of the SS Sultana

It was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history, more costly than even the April 14, 1912 sinking of the Titanic, when 1,517 people were lost. But because the Sultana went down when it did, the disaster was not well covered in the newspapers or magazines, and was soon forgotten. It is scarcely remembered today.

April 1865 was a busy month; On April 9, at Appomattox Couthouse, Virginia, General Robert E. Lee surrendered. Five days later President Abraham Lincoln was assasinated. On April 26 his assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was caught and killed. That same day General Joseph Johnson surrendered the last large Confederate army. Shortly thereafter Union troops captured Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Civil War was over. Northern newspapers rejoiced.

All was quiet and peaceful, many of the soldiers, no doubt, after their long, unwilling fast in southern prisons, were dreaming of home and the good things in store for them there, but alas! those beautiful visions were dissipated by a terrific explosion, for, about two o'clock in the morning of the 27th, as the boat was passing through a group of islands known as the 'Old Hen and Chickens," and while about opposite of Tagleman's Landing had burst one of her boilers and almost immediately caught fire, for the fragments of the boiler had cut the cabin and the hurricane deck in two and the splintered pieces had fallen, many of them, back upon the burning coal fires that were now left exposed. The light, dry wood of the cabins burned like tinder and it was but a short time ere the boat was wrapped in flames, burning to the water's edge and sinking.

Suddenly, three of the huge boilers exploded with a volcanic fury that a witness on the shore described as the thundering noise of 'a hundred earthquakes.' The blast tore instantly through the decks directly above the boilers, flinging live coals and splintered timber into the night sky like fireworks. Scalding water and clouds of steam covered the prisoners who lay sleeping near the boilers. Hundreds were killed in the first moments of the tragedy. The upper decks of the Sultana, already sagging under the weight of her passengers, collapsed when the blast ripped through the steamer's superstructure. Many unfortunate souls, trapped in the resulting wreckage, could only wait for certain death as fire quickly spread throughout the hull. Within twenty minutes of the explosion, the entire superstructure of the Sultana was in flames.

The official cause of the Sultana disaster was determined to be mismanagement of water levels in the boiler, exacerbated by "careening". The Sultana was severely overcrowded and top heavy. As the steamship made its way north following the twists and turns of the river, the Sultana listed severely to one side then the other. The Sultana's four boilers were interconnected and mounted side-by-side, so that if the ship tipped sideways, water would tend to run out of the highest boiler. With the fires still going against the empty boiler, this created hot spots. When the ship tipped the other way, water rushing back into the empty boiler would hit the hot spots and flash instantly to steam, creating a sudden surge in pressure. This effect of careening could have been minimized by maintaining high water levels in the boilers. The official inquiry found that Sultana 's boilers exploded due to the combined effects of careening, low water level, and a faulty repair to a leaky boiler made a few days earlier.

In 1888, a St. Louis resident named William Streetor claimed that his former business partner, Robert Louden, made a deathbed confession of having sabotaged the Sultana by a coal torpedo. Louden was a former Confederate agent and saboteur who operated in and around St. Louis. Louden had the opportunity and motive to attack the Sultana. He may have had access to the means. (Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay, the inventor of the coal torpedo, was a former resident of St. Louis and was involved in similar acts of sabotage against Union shipping interests.) Supporting Louden's claim are eyewitness reports that a piece of artillery shell was observed in the wreckage. Louden's claim is controversial, however, and most scholars support the official explanation.