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Work underway in multimillion-dollar Sutlana museum project


Historic Marion gym being transformed into major attraction honoring ill-fated steamboat

By Ralph Hardin

By now, if you’re a local resident and haven’t heard the story of the Sultana, you simply haven’t been paying attention.

But the ill-fated steamboat’s final voyage, which ended abruptly along the Mississippi River when it exploded near Marion, is all set to be chronicled and displayed in a multimillion- dollar museum that is sure to become a destination for travelers, history buffs and tourists of all sorts when the historic Marion gymnsaium’s transformation into the new home of the Sultana Disaster Museum is completed.

Work has begun on the project, with crews working inside and out to renovate the nearly-100-year-old building that once hosted Marion Spartan (and later Patriot) basketball games and even played host to an Arkansas Razorbacks game on occasion, into a state-of-the art fully immersive and educational museum.

After years of fundraising, the Sultana Historical Preservation Society — the nonprofit behind the museum — hired Memphis-based Zellner Construction to do a $7 million renovation of the old school gym, located just a few blocks away from the existing museum near the Crittenden County Courthouse Square.

The Society hit the final leg of its $10 million fundraising goal through a million-dollar grant from the U.S. Economic Development Agency, a million- dollar grant from FedEx, a $500,000 grant from the Delta Regional Authority;and a $750,000 pledge of state funding from former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, as well as dozens of smaller donations.

The new 17,000 square-foot museum will feature a model of part of the steamboat, a theater, a research library and more. Its developers hope to open its doors to the public in 2025 — the 160th anniversary of the disaster.

“We hope to have a museum visitor taken back to 1865 and hear the individual stories in the words of those soldiers and eyewitnesses,” said John Fogleman, president of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society.

The upgraded Sultana Disaster Museum is expected to draw tourism dollars to the community and become a regular stop for school trips.

Photo courtesy of Sultana Historical Preservation Society

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