Maritime Tragedy: America's Deadliest

The most notorious U.S. maritime tragedy was the boiler explosions on the Sultana, a 260-foot sidewheel steamboat built in 1863. On April 27, 1865, just north of Memphis, Tennessee, three of her four boilers blew.

This maritime tragedy was even greater than the Titanic. On the Western rivers, speed was paramount—as revenues depended on how fast steamboat owners could deliver goods and passengers. For the purpose of maximizing speed, unscrupulous operators would often gag boiler safety valves, thereby enabling them to operate the boilers above safe working pressures.

There was another dimension to this maritime tragedy. The Sultana, which was registered to carry 376 passengers, was crowded with 2,400 Union soldiers, most of whom had been released from prison. More than 1,700 of them died, making it the worst maritime tragedy in U.S. history, and one of the worst of all time. The number of deaths on the Titanic maritime tragedy, forty-seven years later, was 1,522.

The two military boards commissioned to investigate this maritime tragedy both reached similar conclusions in that excessive steam pressure was the main reason for the explosion. After a farcical trial during which one officer was tried and found guilty, he was then exonerated because the JAG office viewed his role as wholly subordinate. No one would ever be tried again, and no one would be punished for the loss of life.

White Sails gives details of the events surrounding this incredible maritime tragedy, and the reasons for Sultana passing almost unnoticed into the pages of history.

I became so enthralled with this maritime tragedy that I started to build a museum-quality model of Sultana. It would be unforgivable of me not to finish this marvelous example of riverboat history and architecture on the Western rivers.