We've all seen paddewheelers in the movies and TV, some have seem them at Disneyland, others I'm sure have read about them. There is nothing that can conjure up the pageantry of the Old South like a paddle-boat (I mean this statement in regards of accepted stereotypes. When someone thinks of Louisiana or Mark Twain one can't hep but think paddlewheeler. Just saying) There is one such ship that will go down in history, but I bet you've never heard of the American Titanic.
On April 27, 1865 the SS Sultana, a Mississippi side wheel steamboat, exploded and become America's biggest maritime disaster. The story however was mostly overshadowed by another national event...the death of John Wilkes Booth that happened only the day before.
On April 21 1865 the Sultana took off from New Orleans with a relatively small group of passengers. Many were Union soldiers who had recently been released from a Confederate Prison and were on their way home. There was also some livestock on board. Like you do.
In Vicksburg they stopped to do some repairs on the boiler system. They were pretty shoddy and more of a patch job then the repairs that were truly needed. Actually what was needed was an entirely new boiler. Now in Vicksburg the small contingent of about 100 passengers blossomed into about 2,000. People fought, bribed, and crowded their way onto the ship until it was nay bursting at the seams. The capacity for the boat was only around 375 so you can see that it was severely overcrowded. Also many of the soldiers were weak and sick from their incarceration.
About seven miles from Memphis the shoddily repaired boiler blew. The explosion flung passengers everywhere. Off the deck into the water. Into each other. It also torn a huge hole in a section of the deck. Hot coals were strewn everywhere from the explosion thus turning the wooden paddlewheeler into an inferno.
It took an hour for the closest ship to reach the Sultana. The remains of the ship sunk near modern day Marion. Many of the passengers actually died of hypothermia because the water was near freezing. Many bodies were never recovered.
So there you go. The story of America's Titanic. Not as newsworthy of course but only because it was overshadowed by old Johnny Booth getting his comeuppance.
In 1982 the wreckage from the Sultana was located...under a soybean field. The Mississippi River has changed a bit over the years.
There are several songs about the Sultana. Check out Cory Brennan's Sultana for a good one.
Until next time, maninis.