Monday, March 19, 2012

Tennessee man's working model captures every detail of ill-fated Sultana

Second of three parts (Read part one)

An advanced model builder must have an eye for detail, a mind sharpened by research and hands that can fashion the smallest of parts.

His most important attribute, perhaps, might be patience.

Over three years, Bill Gray of Cleveland, Tenn., built a 1/96 scale working model of the Sultana, a steamboat paddle wheeler that was rocked by a boiler explosion and caught fire on April 27, 1865, a few miles north of Memphis, Tenn.

An estimated 1,800 of its nearly 2,400 passengers died -- the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. By comparison, just over 1,500 people went down on the Titanic in April 1912.

Most of the unfortunate souls aboard the overcrowded boat were freed Union prisoners of war en route to repatriation in Ohio and, then, home. The model was built in memory of Madison Hysinger, the great-great uncle of Gray's wife. Hysinger died in the incident; his body was never recovered.

The 36-inch radio-controlled operating model is on exhibit through March 25 (Sunday) in Marion, Ark., not far from where the real vessel burned and went down in the Mississippi River. The exhibit also features a few artifacts from the Sultana, photos, reunion pins, newspaper articles and other items.

Gray, who did not use a kit, worked from plans drawn up by David Meagher.

“I made all the parts by hand," said Gray, 68. "I had to build it with tweezers.”

He utilized plywood, spruce, other woods, plastic and metal on the model, which was completed in 2009. “Detailing takes the most time.”

Gray crafted a stairway, doors, potbelly stove, windows -- everything. The padde wheels (left) alone took 12 hours each to build.

“The bell is carved out of wood and painted bronze," Gray told the Picket last week. "There is simulated fire and flames in the boiler. They are flickering lights from an HL gauge train set. You can get a lot of material from railroad train stores.”

Electric motors power the paddle wheels. The actual Sultana used a rudder, and the crew could reverse one engine and make the other go forward to make tight turns and maneuvers.

The speedy Sultana was 260 feet long and was only a few years old when it made its last fateful voyage down to New Orleans and back up to Vicksburg, Ms., where it picked up its large load of soldiers. From there, it steamed toward the Ohio River, never to complete its trip.

“It was a very nice boat," said Gray, who grew up in Chattanooga, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. "It was well-built.”

Gray, who owns a welding and fabrication business, has taken the model to annual meetings of the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. It will be on display at this year's gathering April 27-28 in Cincinnati.

“I run it at a pond at my house. It’s too fragile to travel much.”

The model can notch a cruising speed of about four or five miles per hour, he said.

Gray has built several paddle wheel steamboats. He currently is constructing a 1/32 replica of the USS Chattanooga, used by the Union in the "Cracker (supply) Line" in Chattanooga.

Three of Gray's ancestors fought for the Confederacy, two dying at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Many people in eastern Tennessee, however, fought for the Union.

Hysinger, who was married but had no children, was a member of the 3rd Tennesee Calvary, Company H.

“There was nine people from Bradley County we know of on board the Sultana (above), all Union soldiers, released from Cahaba and Andersonville (prisons)," according to Gray. Only one survived the catastrophe.

Gray supports plans to build a permanent museum or exhibit on the Sultana in Marion, and said the model will go to the collection after he and his wife have passed away.

He may lend the model to a couple museums during the Civil War sesquicentennial.

Historians and descendants lament the fact that few Americans know about the Sultana disaster. It occurred shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston had just surrendered a large Confederate army in North Carolina and a war-weary country was trying to move on.

“I hope the younger people take an interest in it," said Gray.

Model photos courtesy of Bill Gray. Top photo is of Gray; the late Glenna Jenkins Green, daughter of Samuel Jenkins, a Sultana survivor; and Glenna's daughter, Judy Green Vaughan. Sultana photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. The Sultana exhibit runs through March 25 at the Bella Vista Commons #3, 2895 Highway 77, Marion, Ark. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Mondays-Saturdays; 1-5 p.m. on Sundays. It's free but donations are accepted. Call 870-739-6041 for more information. The Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends will be having its 25th annual reunion in Cincinnati on April 27 (Friday) and April 28 (Saturday). For more information, contact Norman Shaw at