The Sultana: A story of greed, chaos and fire

In the early morning hours of April 27th 1865 the steamboat Sultana was seven miles north of Memphis, Tennessee, when three of the four boilers exploded. Samuel Clemens (not the famous author) was the engineer on duty that night. He suffered severe scalding and died later that day after giving testimony to the first investigators.

The largest maritime disaster in American history

Over 1,700 lives were taken by the explosion, the fire, and the cold Mississippi river waters. This disaster remains the largest maritime disaster in American history. The majority of the passengers on the boat were soldiers who had recently been released from Confederate prisoner of war camps. These men had survived horrendous conditions, most were starved and all were looking forward to returning home to their families and farms. They considered themselves lucky, as many of their friends did not survive the war.

Earlier that April, Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army, effectively ending the war. Two weeks before the Sultana tragedy, President Lincoln had been shot, and just a day before the explosion, Lincoln’s assassin was killed. A nation tired of war and death barely acknowledged the Sultana tragedy.

A seminal event

However, two members of the Polytechnic Club, a Hartford, Connecticut based organization consisting of businessmen who gathered “to discuss matters of science in relation to everyday life,” took action. Jeremiah Allen and Edward Reed formed a boiler insurance company that tied boiler inspections and insurance together as a package. Allen and Reed founded The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company (HSB), which was incorporated in June of 1866 in Hartford, Connecticut, still the company’s home today.

Greed and corruption

It was later learned that 2,400 people were stuffed onto the Sultana when, legally, it could only carry 376. What’s even more astounding is that two boats left the wharfs empty that same day. Greed and corruption are the reason for this. And, that greed, corruption and human elements are the primary story conveyed in two books on the subject by Jerry Potter and Gene Salecker. This is also the story investigated in the Sultana documentary, Remember The Sultana, that premiered on April 27th to mark the 150th anniversary of the tragedy.

Unraveling the mystery

The story is only a story because of the boiler explosion and without it, the Sultana would be only a few lines in history books. As HSB’s principal engineer for boilers, I was asked to comment on the cause of the explosion for the upcoming documentary. At first, I thought the request would be a quick review and acknowledgement of the most commonly cited theory of the explosion. I was wrong and it became a challenge to determine the causes of the explosion. The blogs that follow will track my discoveries leading up to the revelation of the causes of the explosion. In the next post, I will look at boiler explosion theory and what the engineers in 1865 did and did not know about boiler explosions.


© 2015 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is intended for information purposes only. HSB makes no warranties or representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the content of this article.


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