Sunday, April 25, 2021

On anniversary of the Sultana disaster -- which took 1,200 lives -- Arkansas city to launch capital campaign to build a larger museum

Haizlip Studio rendering of new museum's exterior (Courtesy of SHPS)
14-foot model depicting boilers explosion on Sultana (Courtesy of Gene Salecker)
Update: Governor Hutchinson pledges $750K for museum

The burned remnants of the steamboat Sultana lie beneath an Arkansas soybean field on the edge of the Mississippi River.

On Tuesday morning, just a few miles from that field, local and state leaders will kick off a $7.5 million capital campaign to build a permanent museum remembering the Sultana and the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history.

Officials for years have said it’s important that the little-known story of greed, fraud, valor and sacrifice be told in a bigger way than what’s covered in a “little bitty” temporary museum.

Now it’s time for that dream to sprout, they say.

Marion, Ark., was the closest community to where the overcrowded Sultana – carrying hundreds of Federal soldiers home at the end of the Civil War -- exploded and caught fire, killing about 1,200 passengers and crew. Tuesday’s kickoff, fittingly, comes on the 156th anniversary of the disaster. Marion is a bedroom community just west of Memphis, Ark.

Sultana memorial in 2015 (Courtesy of Robert Burke, Marion, Ind.)
The Sultana Historical Preservation Society, which has spearheaded the project in collaboration with the city, believes a compelling museum and effective marketing can bring in up to 50,000 visitors a year who collectively will spend millions of dollars to support the economy in Marion and nearby communities.

“We believe this story needs to be told now more than ever,” supporters say in an online video.

The national campaign kickoff will take place at a former high school auditorium-gymnasium on Military Road that will feature up to 17,000-square feet of exhibit space.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is expected to be the keynote speaker and indicate state support.

On display for the first time will be a 14-foot replica of the boat showing the damage done after three of the Sultana’s boilers exploded.

Haizlip Studio rendering of exhibit on what followed disaster (Courtesy SHPS)
“The new model shows a hole in the middle of the decks and a cloud of hot steam rising up through the severed decks, the twin smokestacks down, and the decks crushed together, which pinned many of the Sultana soldiers in the wreckage to be burned to death once the fire started,” says Sultana author and lecturer Gene Salecker.

Hundreds of Federal soldiers, many recently freed from Confederate prisons, including Andersonville and Cahaba, perished on their way home, a cruel fate after enduring months or years of privation.

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. Accounts of the tragedy were overshadowed by headlines about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

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. Capt. J. Cass Mason agreed to take the enlisted men for $3; Hatch kept the $2.

Rick DeSpain's depiction of the April 1865 disaster (
Museum supporters say it’s important to detail the corruption and greed that foreshadowed the disaster. But they also want to tells stories of heroism among survivors and local residents who came to the aid of the injured – their enemies in wartime.

Some local residents have questioned whether the project is the best use of money and will bring in enough visitors. “I think Marion needs a lot more things to be more attractive than a Sultana museum right now. Let’s bring things that will actually grow marion and help lower our taxes," one commenter wrote on the city's Facebook page.

The story of the Sultana runs deep in the blood of Judge John Fogleman, president of the Sultana society, and his cousin Frank, the city’s longtime mayor. Their great-great-grandfather, John Fogleman, after lashing two or three logs together, poled his way through the current of the Mississippi River and toward survivors.

Another great-great-grandfather, Franklin Hardin Barton, an officer with the 23rd Arkansas Cavalry, used a dugout canoe to reach survivors, many of whom were burned or scalded. "Arkansans up and down the river answered the call and helped with the rescue and care for the survivors and recovery of the victims," he said.

John Fogleman told the Civil War Picket in recent email the project has received donations and pledges totaling $1.2 million. “Under our contract with the City of Marion we may start construction once we have raised in donations and commitments for donations totaling $3 million.”

Haizlip schematic of exhibit space, subject to change (Courtesy SHPS)
The historical society hired a Little Rock fundraiser to lead the campaign, with an expectation of an opening in late 2023 if the campaign is successful. About $4 million of the $7.5 million goal will go toward construction and renovation of the auditorium-gymnasium. The $3.5 million will go toward marketing, property acquisition, a film and the fees for architect Haizlip Studio.

The Marion Advertising and Promotions Commission, affiliated with the city government, has pledged about $500,000 to help build the museum and defray operating costs, according to reports.

Salecker says Tuesday’s event will also highlight artifacts and items currently on display at the Sultana Disaster Museum a few blocks away.

“The current, interim museum, located in a small, out-of-the-way building, contains only about 1,000 square feet of space,” he says. “The new museum will be located in the center of the city along a major roadway, near city hall and the city library, and will encompass over 22,000 square feet.” (Officials say current plans from Haizlip Studio are subject to modification.)

It’s been a protracted march to raise awareness of the episode in Civil War history and bring in a large amount of money for a permanent museum.

Current museum is in a small place on Washington Street.
A major consideration has been whether there is sufficient national interest now that the sesquicentennial is several years past. Still, community leaders believe a new museum -- with interactive displays and a “wow” factor -- is worth pursuing.

Ralph Hardin, editor of the Evening Times newspaper, recently wrote an opinion piece extolling the museum, its potential economic impact and the necessity of local support.

“This could be our Graceland,” he wrote, referencing Elvis Presley’s mansion in Memphis.

“No, I don’t expect millions of visitors, singing songs and holding candlelight vigils, but it is a fascinating story that can and will draw interest from all over the country. This museum isn’t just a tribute to the disaster and the people who lost their lives, it’s an important dot on the map of history, and one that will bring people to the community.”

John Fogleman says those wishing to make a donation can mail a check to P.O. Box 211, Marion, Arkansas 72364 or visit


  1. Thank you for this important story. I should have added in my email to you that there were many other rescuers besides my great great grandfathers. There was Thomas Lamberson and George Malone. There was a William Boardman from Hopefield. Arkansans up and down the river answered the call and helped with the rescue and care for the survivors and recovery of the victims.

  2. Thanks for those additions, judge.