At the end of the American Civil War, a wooden steamboat carrying thousands of individuals, including Union prisoners of war, exploded in the Mississippi River. The explosion, which is estimated to have killed approximately 1,800 individuals according to the American Battlefield Trust, is cited as the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.
Despite the significance of the event, the Sultana disaster, named after the steamboat in question, has achieved little notice, according to local officials. This lack of attention is expected to be remedied with the launch of a new capital campaign for a renovated museum dedicated to the Sultana and its history.
The Sultana Historical Preservation Society established a museum in 2015 but are now looking to expand the facility. The new facility, designed by Haizlip Studio of Memphis, will be located at Briarwood and Military Road in Marion.
On Tuesday, April 27, state and local officials, as well as executive development executives, gathered in Marion to kick off a $7.5 million fundraising campaign for the museum. The date marked the 156 anniversary of the Sultana explosion, which occurred on April 27, 1865.
As part of the capital campaign, the Marion Advertising & Promotion Commission committed $500,000 to the project, while the Sultana Historical Preservation Society made a $161,000 donation to the effort.
Two campaign sponsors will receive a named area in the museum. Premier Bank committed $150,000 to the museum campaign, and the museum’s Orientation Theater will be named in honor of the bank. Fidelity Bank received naming rights for the museum store after committing $100,000 to the campaign.
Other entities also made financial commitments to the museum and received naming rights to exhibits or smaller areas of the museum. Partners Bank will receive naming rights to the Mississippi River & Transportation and Helena Floor Interactive with its $50,000 donation, while Hino Motors Manufacturing received naming rights for the exhibit workshop with its $40,00 commitment. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad committed $25,000 to the project and will have naming rights to the boiler exhibition, while Holly Chevrolet will have naming rights to the rescue exhibit with a $25,000 commitment.
The event attracted a range of officials, including some from across state lines. Kevin Kane, president of Memphis Tourism, was on hand at the event, noting that the drive from downtown Memphis to the Marion location of the Sultana Museum was only 14 minutes.
Calling the Sultana explosion an “amazing” and “poignant” story, Kane said that it was under-told despite its national significance. “This is a vital part of the history of the great Mississippi River,” he said.
The museum, he said, will help tell the story in a meaningful way and provide unique tourism opportunities for the region. Tourism, Kane said, will be picking up as the COVID-19 pandemic gets under increasing control, and the museum stands to be another asset in the tristate area of Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi.
“This industry is going to make a huge, huge comeback,” Kane said. “People are ready to get going again. They are ready to get traveling again.”
Arkansas Senate Minority Leader Sen. Keith Ingram agreed with Kane, noting that “this project is certainly going to be part of it,” referring to tourism as the second largest industry in the state of Arkansas. “There are going to be many, many opportunities for tourists to come into our town,” he said.
For Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the museum will serve as both an economic driver and a historical corrective. Noting that the Sultana disaster happened only days after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the subsequent manhunt for John Wilks Booth, Hutchinson said that the event never got its due. “This has never gotten the historical attention that it ordinarily would,” he said.
He declared April 27, 2021 to be Sultana Disaster Remembrance Day, and he announced that the state of Arkansas would provide $750,000 in funding over the next two years for the project out of the governor’s discretionary funds.