Monday, June 5, 2017

Louis Intres thinks you should know about the Sultana disaster. But, first, he aims to raise about $3 million to do it right.

Louis Intres, a retired banker, teaches history in Arkanas

Louis Intres and others who hope to build a permanent museum about the Civil War’s Sultana disaster believe they are on a mission to keep a small – but dramatic -- part of American history alive.

“A great story like this can’t be allowed to die,” said Intres, who has been hired by the city of Marion, Ark., to lead an effort to raise nearly $3 million to build a modern venue.

The steamboat, chugging north on the Mississippi River, exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing about 1,800 passengers and crew (although some say the figure was lower). Many of those on board were released Union prisoners, many from Andersonville, heading home at war’s end.

Marion was the closest community to where the overcrowded 260-foot sidewheeler came to rest and residents – including an ancestor of Mayor Frank Fogleman -- helped rescue those thrown into the chilly waters. (The wreckage is believed to be under a field near the river.)

A couple decades ago, Sultana Disaster Museum supporters were at the starting line in their effort to tell this story and bring some tourism to the town of about 12,500. The disaster was little known, not helped by the fact that it got lost at the time in headlines about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

A book by Memphis attorney Jerry Potter in the early 1990s helped get the ball rolling. Marion, along with a local historical society and the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, have since pushed the story of the Sultana with a small temporary museum, special events and participation in anniversary articles and television programs.

“It has been a wonderful sleepy community near Memphis,” Intres said of Marion. “It is (now) seeking its own identity, maybe for the first time.”

Harper's Weekly illustration of the April 1865 disaster

Intres, 68, faces a daunting challenge, although supporters point to his 38-year banking career, fundraising experience, Sultana knowledge and passion for the project – he’s presented exhibits and given talks. Intres, an adjunct history instructor at Arkansas State University, is wrapping up a Ph.D degree in heritage and cultural studies.

A feasibility study, delivered to the city last year, lays out the opportunities and challenges that await in bringing in about 35,000 annual patrons. Officials know they will have to tap into the Memphis tourism market. And many of those 10.5 million annual visitors don’t come for history. They are more interested in food, music and the river.


-- The strength of the Sultana Story: It much more than a story about war. It also was the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

-- There are a number of tools to spread the word and generate interest among other audiences.

-- The museum will benefit from its proximity to Memphis and the Memphis visitor market.

-- The uniqueness and importance of the venue should garner support at the state level.


-- Getting the word out about Sultana; building brand awareness.

-- Lack of complementary attractions in Marion/Crittenden County.

-- Geographic distribution of the resident market with the majority of the market population on the eastern side of the river (Memphis).

-- Civil War interest peaked during the sesquicentennial. The subject of the war not popular with some demographics.

'It is a story of great magnitude'

(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)

A small temporary museum on Washington Street (above) features a handful of artifacts directly related to the disaster, a 14-foot replica of the steamboat and associated items from survivors, including reunion items from the late 19th and early 20th century. Most were collected by Gene Salecker, a Sultana author and lecturer. The museum has little marketing and draws no more than 100 visitors a month.

“It is totally inadequate to tell the story of the Sultana,” said Intres. ”It is a fine little community museum. This is a true American story. It is a story of great magnitude.”

Haizlip Studio of Memphis designed the proposed $2.8 million permanent museum. The plan features 5,500 square feet for permanent exhibits, plus space for changing attractions.

It features a large model of the steamboat, a movie and several stations, with topics ranging from Civil War prisons, the river, the building of the Sultana and bribery/overcrowding.
(Salecker and Potter have written about a kickback scheme between the vessel's financially-strapped captain and an Army quartermaster, Lt. Col. Reuben B. Hatch. According to Potter, the transport fee was $5 for an enlisted man, $10 for an officer. Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.)

Intres, who said the museum could open with phase one completed, said the Hatch story is compelling and will be expanded to “show what a scoundrel he truly was.”

The story goes that Ozias M. Hatch, his brother, and other Illinois lawyers were close to Abraham Lincoln before he became president.  Ines and others believe he often asked for intercession from Lincoln, as president, and others to have corruption allegations against Reuben dropped or to give him job recommendations.

In the end, no one was formally held accountable for putting too many men on the Sultana, despite documented concerns about the safety of one of the boat's boilers.

Courtesy of Haizlip Studio: Concept plan of Sultana Disaster Museum, which is planned to be located in Marion, Ark. Click to enlarge

According to the Evening Times newspaper in Crittenden County, the Marion Advertising and Promotions Commission has agreed to spend $400,000 to help build the museum and another $75,000 a year to help defray operating costs over the next 10 years. Intres said the museum will not take away from city services or be an extra burden on citizens.

He will begin reaching out soon to tourism and historical groups, corporations, foundations and individuals. “My responsibility is to put together to put the fundraising program to prepare the grant applications, as well as put together the promotional packages to go to prospective …  contributors to help fund it.”

“It will not be built with a thousand small contributions. It will require large contributions that will make sure American history is not lost,” said Intres. “We seem to be moving away from patriotism, what our country is, and how it was built.”

Everything riding on fundraising campaign

Mayor Fogleman told the Evening Times that Intres, who lives an hour away in Jonesboro, is being “being hired to eat, drink, and sleep Sultana. I expect him to further our cause and make our present effort better and to help further refine what we want to do with the new (museum).”

Intres said he will continue teaching but will work a couple days a week in Marion. “This is something I want to do to finish up my public life. I would like this to be my swansong.”

Salecker said Intres is the perfect person for a job that is part cheerleader, part business development director.

Salecker with a model of the Sultana at museum

“I know that the mayor of Marion and the Chamber of Commerce members interviewed a number of people regarding the directorship but Louis was the only one that had the knowledge about the Sultana, plus the banking background and the contacts and experience needed to raise the necessary funds,” Salecker said.

Intres said he expects the museum to be built, “but it will be totally contingent on the success of this campaign.”

He said the city and chamber are all in, with an agreement to meet every 90 days to make a reality check. “As we go along, we will evaluate our progress.”

Back to his passion. Intres is full of stories of what happened to those on the Sultana and survivors who coped with the tragedy.

“You have heroism,” he said. “It’s got intrigue. It has all the elements of a great, great history story. If a movie could be made by Hollywood in a proper way, the whole story, it would be a blockbuster film.”

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