The House of Representatives has introduced legislation to commemorate the 1865 explosion aboard the steamboat Sultana and the subsequent fire.

The Sultana was a steamboat with side wheels that traveled the Mississippi River during Civil War. It could carry 376 passengers and carried 2,137 people. Three of its four boilers burst on April 27, 1865.

H.R. H.R. 4703, introduced by Eric Crawford, R.-Miss.

Three commemorative coins will be issued under the measure: A gold $5 half-eagle with a maximum of 100,000; a Silver Dollar with a Maximum Mintage of 500,000; and an Copper-nickel Clad Half Dollar with a Maximum Mintage of 750,000.

All three coins would have the same composition. All three coins could be made available to the public in Proof or Uncirculated versions.

Under the terms of the legislation, surcharges of $35 for $5 coins, $10 per dollar, and $5 per $0.5 per dollar would be charged to the “Sultana Historical Preservation Society, Inc.” in order to establish and maintain a new Sultana catastrophe museum.

The Sultana’s destruction

The Sultana was built from wood in a boatyard on the Ohio River, Cincinnati. It ran a regular route between New Orleans, Missouri, and St. Louis from its launch Jan. 3, 1863 to its destruction in 1865.

The legislation states that the steamboat was built to speed and maximize its capacity. The steamboat’s four tubular fire-tube boilers could produce twice the steam per fuel load than conventional fuel boilers. These advantages were not without their drawbacks. Tubular boiler systems required that the water levels were maintained at all times. Any dip in water levels could cause sediment buildup around boilers and hot spots on boilers, which can lead to metal fatigue. These two events greatly increased the chance of an explosion. The Sultana was also constructed with highly flammable lightweight timber that was varnished and covered with paint. It is highly unlikely that such an explosion could occur.

The boat carried mostly Union prisoners of war, mostly from Confederate prisons in Cahaba, Alabama, and Andersonville, Georgia, on its tragic trip to Cairo, Illinois in April 1865. The vessel was dangerously crowded with former POWs, many who were ill, as well as other passengers.

“[F]orcing herself against the strong Mississippi River Current, the Sultana was ten mile upriver of Memphis, Tennessee at 2 a.m. when the strained boilers burst. According to the legislation, many were killed in the explosion. Many others were injured by fire, falling timbers and shrapnel.

“The Sultana‘s remains took approximately twenty minutes to heat to the waterline before being buried in the mud along the Arkansas-side to the Mississippi River. It is believed that it lies under twenty feet of soil, near Marion, Arkansas in Crittenden County.

The society would receive funding from the surcharges. According to the legislation, “A small group from Marion, Arkansas formed the Sultana Historical Preservation Society in 2015 and opened a small museum.” The Society is a 501(c),(3) organization. It plans to build a new Sultana Disaster Museum in central Marion. This museum will be built on the site of the Marion Public School gymnasium.


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