Sultana Museum Raising Funds For Planned Expansion

The historical society that maintains a tiny building housing a museum commemorating the deadliest maritime disaster in the history of the United States is trying to raise money for an expansion. The Sultana Disaster Museum occupies a building of just 1,000 square feet in Marion, Ark., west of the Mississippi River and slightly northwest of Memphis, Tenn.

The name of that disaster and the vessel that experienced it, the Sultana, are not as well known to the American public as some other disasters that have gripped its imagination, such as the sinking of the Titanic. Yet the total loss of life on the Sultana on April 27, 1865, was 1,400, all Americans, compared with only a hundred more on the Titanic.

The Sultana was a paddlewheel steamship that was overloaded with Union soldiers recently released from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps. Its legal capacity was only 376, yet it carried up to 2,200 people that day. When one of its boilers exploded, it caused a fire that engulfed the vessel and sent it to the bottom of the Mississippi River about 7 miles north of Memphis on the Arkansas side. One of its jackstaffs was visible until the early 1900s. After the river changed course, the ship’s remains are now under a soybean field.

The museum opened in 2015. John Fogleman, president of the Sultana Historic Preservation Society, told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette January 3 that it needs more space. Fogleman, a retired judge, said the boat came to rest only 400 yards from the home of his great-great-grandfather, who helped rescue survivors. Many supporters of the Confederacy risked their lives that day to save Union soldiers, he said.

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The society has made an agreement with Marion County to lease a 17,000-square-foot school gym built in 1937, to be taken over when the school completes a new gym building.

Fogleman told the Democrat Gazette the society is trying to raise $7.5 million, of which $4.5 million to $5 million will be spent on restoration and construction. About $1.5 million has been raised so far; the society wants to wait on starting renovation until it has raised at least $3 million. Fogleman hopes about $3 million more can be set aside as an endowment.