What Happened to The Sultana: The Greatest Maritime Disaster in US History

What happened?

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. The explosion and resulting fire remain the largest maritime disaster in U.S. History. Over 1,700 lives were taken by the explosion, the fire, and the cold Mississippi river waters.

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.

The boilers on the Sultana were less than three years old, but they were in horrible condition. The iron plates were burnt, one of the boilers had two repairs in two months and they had already been re-tubed once. Although the inspection 15 days before the explosion indicated they were safe, they were not.

The fatal four that caused the tragedy

1. Material of Construction

The iron (Charcoal Hammered No. 1) used in construction was a poor quality iron. While it was the best available material of the day, it was not a suitable boiler material. This type of iron gets brittle when it is overheated and cooled repeatedly. By the late 1800’s, the textbooks noted that CH No. 1 iron was “not a suitable iron for boiler construction.”

2. Water Treatment

These boilers had no water treatment and used water straight from the Mississippi River. The mud in the water settled on the plates and surfaces acting as an insulator between the water and the iron. This caused the iron to repeatedly overheat and burn. As noted, this iron gets brittle when it is overheated and cooled repeatedly.

3. Boiler Design

The Sultana boilers were a firetube design. They used 24 smaller flues instead of the traditional two larger flue design. This larger number of smaller tubes arranged closely together made the boilers hard to clean exacerbating the Mississippi River mud settling on the boiler bottom. This design proved to be incompatible with the material of construction and the water quality and these boiler designs were removed from the Mississippi river.

These points are supported by testimony while accounting for what engineers did not know about explosions at the time. They match the statistics of boiler explosions of the time and the science of boiler explosion theory. These boilers were almost destined to explode and unfortunately, the boat was packed with those doomed passengers when they finally did.

4. Greed and corruption 

It was later determined 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. Numerous books have been written on the subject and a documentary, “Remember The Sultana” premiered on the 150th anniversary of the tragedy. HSB’s Patrick Jennings was asked to shed light on the boiler explosion in the film. You can find the documentary on Amazon Prime starring Lord of the Rings’ actor Sean Astin.

HSB is born

It was 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,” that took action in the aftermath of the Sultana.

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.

Other modern day benefits stemming from this disaster include the inspection and insurance industry as well as codes such as the ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code and the National Board Inspection Code.

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© 2021 The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. All rights reserved. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey or constitute legal advice. HSB makes no warranties or representations as to the accuracy or completeness of the content herein. Under no circumstances shall HSB or any party involved in creating or delivering this article be liable to you for any loss or damage that results from the use of the information contained herein. Except as otherwise expressly permitted by HSB in writing, no portion of this article may be reproduced, copied, or distributed in any way. This article does not modify or invalidate any of the provisions, exclusions, terms or conditions of the applicable policy and endorsements. For specific terms and conditions, please refer to the applicable endorsement form.

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