Sultana project manager says it’s time to start thinking big

Sultana project manager says it’s time to start thinking big

Intres: ‘ This is a major, national story — the greatest maritime disaster in U. S. history — comparable only to the Titanic’

The sinking of the steamboat Sultana in 1865 and the loss of over 1,100 passengers is not just a Marion, Arkansas story. It’s also not just another Civil War story either.

It’s a national story waiting to be told to a larger audience.

At least, that’s the way Louis Intres, project manager for the Sultana Disaster Museum, sees it.

Intres is leading the effort to raise money to build a permanent museum in Marion that will tell the Sultana’s story and said it is time to start thinking big.

“This is a major, national story — the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history — comparable only to the Titanic,” Intres said.

“The people who have been thinking about this museum have been thinking much too small. My job and my obligation to this community is to build a museum that will make it a destination and that will bring people to Marion.”

The Sultana was a paddlewheel steamboat that exploded and sank in a fiery inferno on the Mississippi River just above Memphis on April 27, 1865 and resulted in the loss of over 1,100 people who were onboard. The boat was carrying more than 2,000 passengers, mostly Union soldiers who were returning home from the war and had been crammed on board the boat, which had a faulty boiler.

Survivors were rescued from the icy river by residents of Mound City, who only weeks before the disaster had served the Confederacy. The remains of the boat are buried under a soybean field near Marion.

Marion opened a small museum on Washington Street to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the sinking in 2015 and is now working on plans to raise money to build a larger, permanent museum.

Intres said the Sultana story is slowly getting out there, but still only about one percent of the population have ever heard of it.

The story has been documented by the Travel Channel, The History Channel, Public Broadcasting System, and now a new 90 minute documentary by filmmakers Mike and Mark Marshall narrated by actor Sean Astin.

And new research has now connected the Sultana disaster all the way to Abraham Lincoln, who intervened to stop a court martial of Reuben Hatch, who was quartermaster in Cairo and later in Vicksburg and was accused of stealing. Reuben Hatch was the brother of Ozias Hatch, Illinois Secretary of State , and a close friend of Lincoln who had helped get him elected.

Reuben Hatch was suspected of taking bribes to put all of the remaining soldiers on board the Sultana.

“The tragedy would never have occurred had Abraham Lincoln not intervened to save the skin of a known criminal,” Intres said. “So the story is major — not just because of the size or magnitude of the deaths that rival the Titanic — but also because we know that the story includes people like Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln, who made some terrible decisions that directly led to the Sultana tragedy.”

Intres said the Sultana is also about to get even more national attention with the release of a new book by New York Times best-selling author Andrew Carroll.

“He’s publishing a book about the ten greatest forgotten events in U.S. history,” Intres said. “One of them is about the Sultana.”

Intres said he is about to kick off the fundraising campaign to raise money to build the museum. He had to first get the non-profit organization re-certified with the IRS.

“People aren’t going to give you a million dollars if they don’t get a tax credit for it,” Intres said. “So we have spent the last 45 days rewriting and amending and preparing a new tax exempt organization which will be adequate for the project.”

The city has already completed a feasibility study and an economic impact study which both showed that a museum would draw visitors to the city and be a boost to the Marion economy.

Marion has also worked with the Haizlip Studio, a Memphis architectural firm which specializes in museum design, and come up with some generalized drawings to give the city ideas on what the museum could look like and how much it will cost.

Preliminary estimates put the cost at about $3 to $5 million, but Intres believes he can raise $10 to $15 million.

“We’ll only know how much money we need once we really get started with the fundraising,” Intres said. “But when I talk to people across the country they all say ‘That’s too little. That’s not going to be big enough to tell this story. Not if you want to do it right. ‘ I believe that our fundraising will far outdraw the $3 or $5 million originally intended.”

He’s prepared a promotional package to give to potential donors that includes a DVD with a short documentary about the Sultana and a URL to watch it on a computer, materials that give an overview of the scope of the project and levels of giving, a 14 page brochure with historical headlines and news stories about the museum, and a hardcover book which goes into more detail about the history of the disaster.

“We’ve designed what I believe is a very attractive promotional package which will be going out to potential benefactors nationwide,” Intres said. “These are people who control or manage or administer or direct major foundations, philanthropies, corporations, and private individuals who have deep pockets, because that is what you need to build something like this.”

Intres said the museum will need to be interactive to appeal to visitors of all age. He envisions using a hologram of a Union soldier to tell the story and designing the inside so that visitors feel like are actually inside the Sultana.

“Let’s all start thinking bigger than we have,” Intres said. “It’s much more than a museum. It’s going to be a national attraction.

So if we are going to build a museum that is going to tell a national story, let’s build one that is capable of doing so. Let’s shoot for the stars.”

He expects to begin sending out the packets and meeting with donors in June.

By Mark Randall