Friday, December 23, 2016

'Hanging our hat on the Sultana': Arkansas city weighs permanent museum about disaster

Harper's Weekly illustration of the April 1865 disaster

The story of the Sultana runs deep in the blood of Frank Fogleman, longtime mayor of Marion, Ark. His great-great-grandfather, after lashing two or three logs together, poled his way through the current of the Mississippi River and toward survivors of the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

He plucked possibly two dozen people -- mostly Federal soldiers who were on the steamboat Sultana and heading home at the end of the Civil War -- from the chilly river.

Today, Marion is a bedroom community just a 10-minute drive from Memphis, across the Mississippi. It was the closest community to where the Sultana exploded and caught fire on April 27, 1865, killing about 1,800 passengers and crew. Accounts of the tragedy were overshadowed by headlines about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The city of 12,500 has been navigating waters of its own in recent months as it considers whether to build a $2.8 million permanent museum featuring the singular story of the Sultana. There are lots of things under consideration: Can it draw the recommended 35,000 annual visitors? Is a $136,000 annual subsidy a wise use of city money? How and where to find people interested in coming?

Fogleman understands all these factors as the effort moves from a 10,000-square-foot preliminary design and market and financial feasibility study to an economic impact analysis.

“There are less than two dozen people with any familiarity with the inner workings of moving this along,” said the longtime mayor, noting there is not yet a groundswell of local enthusiasm. “There is a huge challenge.”

(Photos courtesy of Gene Salecker)
Gene Salecker with Sultana model

A temporary Sultana Disaster Museum is on a quiet side street. It brings in only about 100 visitors a month, although those who come provide positive feedback. A much bigger venue will require a lot more resources and marketing.

“We can’t build it and they come,” Fogleman told the Picket early last month. 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.

But getting a slice of them could pay dividends.

The mayor, Chamber of Commerce, historians and others believe a permanent venue could be a boost to the local economy and a source of tourism.

“We are hanging our hat on the Sultana. It is unique,” Fogleman said. “There are several Titanic displays. The Sultana only sank once and it sank it outside Marion.”

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

The Evening Times reported recently that a city commission voted to help fund the hiring of a museum director for the next three years to help develop the venue and guide city tourism efforts. The mayor said that employee could “breathe some life into this effort.”

Marion Chamber of Commerce President Mike Demster said the group “is supporting the museum until it comes of age and can stand on its own.”

Sultana author and lecturer Gene Salecker, who has donated many Sultana and related items to the existing location, said, “If it can be done well, it can be a great museum.”

“You start going into the museum and see the devastation of the war. These poor guys are getting out of prison. There would be the Sultana and perhaps you could walk on the deck and see the different parts. You walk around and see the devastation on the other side.”

The Sultana Disaster Museum can’t have an old-time feel, Salecker told the Picket. “It has to have the wow factor.”

Exhibits recount the tragic event

The Sultana's story currently is being told from the third location, at 104 Washington St. Volunteers showcase 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 Salecker.

Visitors are asked for a $5 donation and take in an introductory video before walking through four small rooms.

Comb of Albert Cassel, 29th Ohio Infantry, Andersonville POW
(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)

On exhibit are a wooden comb belonging to a soldier and a unique alligator” box made by a survivor, furnace bricks found in a bean field believed to cover some of the boat’s burned remains, metal shakers plates, a passenger’s knife that ended up in Grand Army of the Republic hall in Ohio and a plaque made from wood used on the Sultana.

Salecker, who lives in Illinois, brought down a flag belonging to Albert Norris, a survivor of the Confederate prison camps at Andersonville and Cahaba and who, like many other released prisoners of war, was finally heading home.

Other items include round-bottom fire buckets of the type deployed on steamboats of that era.

“Because the soldiers needed water they used them for drinking and they were not in the rack to fight the fire” on the Sultana, Salecker said.

(Courtesy of the Sultana Disaster Museum)

One of the more curious items is a pair of elk’s antlers used to depict an aspect of Mississippi River commerce and transportation.

The captain of the Sultana, J. Cass Mason, had run the fastest route from New Orleans to St. Louis on a prior trip. Mason received the antlers as a sign of speed.

“Mason promptly had the antlers mounted on the bracing between the two smokestacks (of the Sultana),” the historical society noted. “That way, if any freight dealer or passenger was looking for a fast boat, all they had to do was look at all the boats at a landing, spot one with the elk antlers, and book passage on that steamer.”

“He was a lead foot,” Salecker said of Mason. “He raced his boats, which was not good for the engines or the boilers.”

Plan requires big boost in marketing

The museum feasibility study, conducted by Owens Economics, stated: “The Sultana story is an exceptionally strong story with multiple dimensions. It is a story about war and its aftermath; it is a story about survival and heroism; it is a story about greed and dishonesty; it is a story political wrongdoing; it is a story of the Mississippi River. Most importantly, it is a story that deserves to be told.”

Sultana a day before the disaster (Library of Congress)

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.

Of the temporary venue, the study said the small attendance reflects in part the scale of the museum and limited operations. The museum is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. on Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m.-4 p.m. on Sundays.

The feasibility study said: “The performance of the current Museum does not reflect the potential of a new, properly executed museum project. In spite of limited resources, the museum achieves strong, positive marks from visitors.” A large constraint, it said, is a lack of knowledge about the disaster.

Norman Vickers, president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society, which operates the museum, said the 1,200-1,600 annual visitors come from all the United States and from other countries.

(Courtesy of Gene Salecker)
Brochures, a billboard and the West Memphis Welcome Center help get out the word. “We get more Memphis visitors than (from) locally," Vickers said.

Vickers recalls a visitor impressed by the small museum. “They knew very little about it, or never heard of us before. Someone sent them to see us. They are amazed to hear about the story.”

A closer look at the pros and cons

The feasibility study, delivered to the city in October, lays out the opportunities and challenges.


-- The strength of the Sultana Story: It much more than a story about war.
-- 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.

Sgt. John Clark Ely died
Owens Economics found: “While visitors numbers and visit characteristics are indicators of positive support for a museum such as the Sultana Disaster Museum, this assessment must be tempered by the fact that history and visiting attractions are not the principal reasons people visit Memphis. The most important reasons people come to Memphis are music, food and the Mississippi River.”

But it said “boosters” include possibly joining a network of tourism trails, a growing hotel inventory west of Memphis, river cruise boats and partnerships with other historical venues across Arkansas and in Memphis.

Salecker said there are opportunities to build interest. “If we can get a field trip from Memphis across the river or Little Rock a couple hours away, don’t think we can’t get a lot of the kids interested in it.”

And he points to the proposed permanent location on Highway 77, adjacent to City Hall and the library. The study said the location would provide “enhanced accessibility and visibility compared to the current, temporary museum.”

‘More engaging and interactive’

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

Courtesy of Haizlip Studio: Concept plan of Sultana Disaster Museum

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 author Jerry 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.)

“The concept … envisions a change in the quality of exhibits that would increase their impact and appeal,” the study found. “They would be more engaging and interactive, and incorporate greater use of technology.”

Positive signs amid all the questions

Mayor Fogleman’s ancestors go way back in the county, perhaps as early as 1825. He’s been mayor since 1995. He touts the city’s proximity to Memphis (though he notes he’s never been to Graceland), and its local industry and businesses.

“We feel we have things people are looking for,” he said. “The amenities of Memphis, but you don’t live there.”

The city wants to build its tourism. But, as Fogleman noted, “Money is going to be the end all, be all” for the project.

Monument in Hillsdale, Mich. (Stephenie Kyser)

City officials were told while revenues would cover 75% of the budget, they would need to find $136,000 a year from other sources -- city taxes or through partnerships and grants.

According to the Evening Times, the commission that overseas collections of the 1-cent sales “hamburger” tax on prepared foods has agreed on contributing up to $400,000 to help build a permanent museum.

The economic impact study will provide data that will help leaders determine whether the $2.8 million Sultana plan is worth the effort and risk. The commission is looking at several proposals from companies that want to study the museum and a possible enclosed rodeo arena at an existing sports complex.

“If we determine it is worthwhile, we can look for funding sources. If stagnant, we don’t do it, or do a much more humble vision,” Fogleman said. Residents, he believes, want more information before getting behind an ambitious effort.

Fogleman said one informal projection suggested revenues and sales tax generated by the museum, and its economic impact, could offset or surpass the annual $136,000 city subsidy. For a leader with “my moments of questions,” that scenario “is a positive sign.”

“In my thinking, if we can fund this with grants and sources that do not impact the city annual operating budget, it will be an easier-to-defend project.”

While Fogleman and Salecker bemoan the lack of interest in history by many, they believe the Sultana continues to have a compelling story. And, as the market research indicates, “There exists a morbid fascination with death and destruction.”

“The Sultana for all the quirky reasons has never been afforded its proper place in history,” said Fogleman. “The city can use this as a tourist attraction. We can further the consciousness of the nation of the magnitude of this event.”

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