Sultana groundbreaking draws regional interest
Guest speakers outline long road to new museum
By RALPH HARDIN
In April of 2015, the City of Marion hosted a special event, a gathering of descendants of the 1865 explosion of the steamboat Sultana on the 150th anniversary of the ill-fated ship’s final voyage.
At the time, few could envision what would ultimately come of the event, but through the interest sparked by the arrival of the descendants and the spectacle of seeing Civil War re-enactors on site, 19th century firearms experts offering test shots, covered wagons and folks decked out in era-authentic garb, and idea began to take hold. And while it has taken the seven years since that first gathering, a huge step in the effort to bring the Sultana disaster the recognition it deserves was realized earlier this month.
On Friday, Nov. 11, a crowd of local supporters and regional dignitaries gathered in the historic Marion gymnasium for a special groundbreaking event at what will become the home of a new Sultana Disaster Museum.
The Sultana was a Mississippi River paddlewheel steamboat that exploded about seven miles north of Memphis in the early morning hours of April 27, 1865, killing over 1,700 people in what is considered as the greatest maritime disaster in U.S. history (with more Americans killed in the explosion than in the sinking of the Titanic.
Most of the passengers were Union soldiers who had survived major battles and captivity at Andersonville and Cahaba and were on their way home when they were grossly and negligently overloaded onto the Sultana.
Despite the magnitude of the disaster, most people have never heard of the Sultana. The disaster received little coverage in newspapers at the time and few, if any, history books mention
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Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman paid tribute to the recently-passed Rosalind O’Neal for her many efforts in support of the Sultana Museum.
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the steamboat’s fate.
Because of the explosion’s close proximity to Marion, residents of the community, largely a collection of farms at the time, participated in the search for and rescue of survivors.
About 200 visitors from 25 states made their way to Marion that weekend in 2015 and with them came a renewed interest in Sultana and the opening of a small Sultana Disaster Museum on the Courthouse Square. It also led to an annual symposium of historians and speakers who came each year to share new insights about the disaster, show of relics from the ship and foster the idea that the Sultana disaster was an important event in U.S. history that needed to be highlighted and remembered.
To that end, a massive fundraising effort was launched to create a new, larger museum to house the disaster’s story. Ultimately, the old gym – which at time played host to not only the Marion High School basketball teams but also games featuring the University of Arkansas, Memphis State University and Arkansas State University over its long history – was chosen as the home of the museum.
The Sultana Historical Preservation Society was created, with former Judge John Fogleman as the president and other local supporters taking on executive roles to bring the idea to life. With key fundraising milestones being met, the groundbreaking on Nov. 11 brought those efforts full circle.
“I just want to thank everyone who played a part in getting us to this day,” Fogleman told the crowd ahead of the groundbreaking. “So many people put in their time and effort to make this happen.”
Marion Mayor Frank Fogleman acknowledged those who has supported the museum and its evolution from a tiny single-room spot on near courthouse to what will become a multimillion-dollar facility, including one who had recently passed away just days earlier.
“I couldn’t let the moment pass without mentioning Rosalind O’Neal,” said the mayor. “There was no one who cared about this museum more than Roz. One of the last things she said when we spoke was that she hoped to live long enough to see the museum.”
State Senator Keith Ingram spoke about the push to bring the Sultana disaster to prominence and the potential of the new museum.
“There has been so much work done,” Ingram said. “But that work will pay off. There is a lot of opportunity for this museum to become a major attraction for this community. It will bring people to Crittenden County and it will be a destination for people not just in the Delta but all over the country.”
Also on hand was U.S. Congressman Rick Crawford. Crawford highlighted his efforts to get the Sultana disaster greater recognition at the national level, including a bill he has sponsored to have the United States Mint issue a Sultana commemorative coin.
“I introduced this in Congress last session,” Crawford said. “It’s a slow process but it’s one worth going through to get more people to understand the Sultana disaster and the impact and importance it had on our history.”
U.S. Senator John Boozman addressed the audience and shared his own unfamiliarity with the steamboat’s story until recently.
“Once I heard about it, I became fascinated with the story,” Boozman said. “I wanted to learn more and once I did, I thought that everyone should know this story. I think here today, on Veterans Day, it’s very appropriate we are gathered here. This is the kind of story that all Americans need to hear. This is a story that for a number of reasons has gone untold and I’m happy to support this effort.”
Some of those reasons for the Sultana’s story going untold for so long were highlighted by former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater, who spoke of the events surrounding the disaster and how it came to be buried in the news of the day.
“April of 1865 was a dark time in America,” said Slater. “The Civil War had ended but there was still unrest and social discontent. The president, Abraham Lincoln had just been assassinated. The country was in mourning. There was work to be done putting our nation back together.”
Marion’s new Mayor-elect Tracy Brick, who also serves on the Sultana Historical Preservation Society board, closed the gathering with her remarks, thanking Marion Superintendent Dr. Glen Fenter for allowing the museum to take its new home in the gym and shared her gratitude to the more than 150 donors who have given to the museum’s fundraising efforts.
“Whether it has been ten dollars or a million, we appreciate your support,” Brick said. “This has been an exhaustive effort but one that is worth doing and we could not have gotten to where we are now without you.”
With that, the crowd moved outside the gym for a ceremonial turning of the dirt signaling the first phase of the work that will transform the gym into the Sultana Disaster Museum.
Part of the continued fundraising efforts include a Memorial Brick Campaign. The museum will feature a memorial brick walk and interested patrons can purchase a 4×4-inch or 8×8-inch brick in the name of a loved one or in honor of any individual or entity.
“By purchasing a custom engraved brick for the memorial brick walk, you are helping make the new museum possible by contributing to our capital campaign,” said Brick. “The memorial brick walk will be located in the Flag Plaza at the entrance of the Sultana Disaster Museum and will feature the custom engraved bricks purchased by our generous donors.”
The bricks are $250 and $500 and include custom engraving. Order forms can be requested at the Marion Chamber of Commerce, with checks payable to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society, P.O. Box 211, Marion, AR 72364.
State Senator Keith Ingram outlines all of the effort that went into the creation and growth of the Sultana Museum.