So how could it be that a boat 260 foot in length and licensed to carry only 376 people had an incident that killed 1,700? Greed.

What events could move the story of 1,700 dead to the back page of the newspapers around the nation?

When we think about maritime disasters our minds generally go to the Titanic. On April 14th of 1912 the impossible became possible. The unsinkable vessel Titanic, 882 feet in length, sunk killing 1,517 passengers and crew. However 47 years earlier, almost to the day, there was a steamboat explosion that killed 1,700 passengers and crew. But there has not been a movie about this event, in fact I would take a guess and say the majority who will read this article have never heard of the ship Sultana.

On April 27th of 1865 the steamboat Sultana was powering it way north on the Mighty Mississippi near Memphis, Tennessee. The steamboat had just left a stop in Memphis where coal was loaded on the vessel. The steamboat was not a large vessel as compared to the Titanic; in fact it was only licensed to carry 376 people, including crew. This vessel, like the Titanic, was considered to be ahead of its time and one of the safest on the water. Modern equipment on the boat included safety gauges that fused open when boilers exceeded a predetermined pressure, three pumps for firefighting, 300 feet of firehouse and lifeboats. 

So how could it be that a boat 260 foot in length and licensed to carry only 376 people had an incident that killed 1,700? Greed.

With the end of the civil war Union POW’s were being released and sent back north via steamboats. The United States Government was paying $5 per passenger to transport them to Cairo, Ill. In an effort to make as much money as possible steamboat captains were filling their ships far over capacity up to the point where passenger stood to shoulder with no space to move. The Captains were rumored to be offering kickbacks to army officers for each POW they got on the vessel.

The Sultana, while in port, discovered a problem with one of the four boilers on the ship. In order for the repair to be done correctly it would have taken three to four days, the loss of revenue was too high. The Captain ordered the boiler to be patched and proceed with 2,300 passengers north on April 24th. On April 27th at 2am the patched boiler exploded, subsequently causing two other boilers to explode. Fire spread through the ship while two of the smokestacks toppled over killing passengers. The remainder of the occupants panicked and as opposed to fighting the fire they abandoned ship, flames engulfed the vessel quickly.

What could possibly happen that allowed this tragedy to go virtually unknown? Within a couple weeks leading up to and following this event General Lee had surrendered, President Lincoln was assassinated, John Wilkes Booth, his assassin, was killed, and the civil war had ended. The news cycle never took hold of the largest maritime loss of life recorded.