Ships are designed to face some of the most hostile environments on earth. Built to survive, over the course of human history the seas have been seen as cruel and merciless, and many ships have been lost when they faced the awesome might of the waves and been found wanting.
But not all disasters are caused by the power of the oceans. Some ships, such as the steamship Sultana, were never designed to face the enormous destructive potential of open water, but instead were to ply the calmer, slower waters of the Mississippi.
However, disasters still happen even in the most benign of environments and so it was with the Sultana. What happened to her, and why?
The Sultana was a relatively large steamship, some 260 feet (80 m) long and 42 feet (13 m) wide and designed to carry 375 people along with cargo. With such a passenger number aboard she could sail in comfort, but on the fateful day of her loss she was carrying far more.
The US Civil War was in its closing stages and the Sultana had been pressed into service as a transport ship. Alongside the 180 private passengers and the complement of crew members on the ship, she sailed on April 27th 1865 carrying some 2,000 additional paroled prisoners, guards, and Confederate soldiers.
The United States Sanitary Commission also had many members among the ship’s passengers. When it sailed from Vicksburg, Mississippi, the ship had around 2,400 people on it, six times her design capacity.
Although there were sick and dying prisoners on the Sultana, the mood was good as many were headed home from war, or from prison. Conditions on the Sultana were however very poor, as there was only standing space left for the people.
To make matters worse, the ship was trying to move upstream to Memphis on the Mississippi River. As the ship tried to move upstream in the north, it was challenged by the strong currents of Mississippi’s waters that were unusually high due to the melting of snow upstream.
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Everything was fine till the ship reached Memphis. Some people got off the boat at Memphis to explore the town and then re-boarded the ship. The Sultana had headed upriver again when suddenly, in the middle of the night at 2am, she exploded.
Many people claimed that the Sultana was sabotaged: she could arguably be seen as a military target. However, after several detailed investigations, it was concluded that what made the Sultana explode was not sabotage but an explosion in the boilers.
The explosion had certainly been huge, destroying nearby parts of the ship. Since the ship was already overcrowded, the explosion instantly killed many people. As a result of the explosion, hot water and embers rushed into other areas of the ship where people were resting.
The sleeping passengers were caught off guard by the massive explosion and the hot water that fell through the debris. People were woken by debris flying through the air, while the force of the explosion threw others into the cold Mississippi water in the dark of night.
Many passengers drowned, many struggled to swim, and the luckier ones clung to the floating debris of the ship. The impact injured many people who were aboard the Sultana. Even though people clung to debris to make it to shore or to be discovered, there was very little hope as the shore was not visible in the dark, and there were no other ships or boats to rescue them.
The flooded river and its wide banks made things worse for the survivors. Even people who knew how to swim drowned due to the high current of the Mississippi River.
The tragedy was of such an immense scale that nearly 1,100 of the people aboard Sultana died. Those who lived made it through a lot of difficulties and sustained injuries. The tragedy that struck the Sultana that night remains the deadliest disaster in United States maritime history.
What Made the Sultana Explode?
The investigation conclusions were damning for the owners. The Sultana was a ticking timebomb waiting to explode with many passengers on board.
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The finger was pointed particularly at Sultana’s ironwork, which was of poor quality and could have played a part in the explosion. The iron might have become brittle and weak if the boiler was allowed to overheat, and with poor maintenance and operation the boilers could therefore catastrophically fail. And this is exactly what happened.
The lack of water treatment on the water used for cooling the steamship power plants also could have led to the explosion. The water was used straight from the river, and the mud and debris from the water could have stuck to the plates and blocked them.
With no water cooling the boilers they could overheat, eventually exploding. Better maintenance and processes inside the ship’s boiler chamber could have stopped the tragedy from happening.
The boiler design also played a huge role in the malfunction as it was incompatible with the ship design, material and the water used to run the ship. The incompatibility put the boiler under more strain than it was designed for, which could cause the boiler to overheat and explode, especially when the ship was overcrowded and carried too much load.
The engineers of that time who were involved in ship design were not skilled enough and did not have enough resources to perfect the design against such an explosion. It was accepted in engineering circles that the design of the ship boiler had the possibility of an explosion at any given time.
However, since instances of such explosions were infrequent at that time, engineers never focused on ruling out explosion-ready boilers from use. Improvements in boiler design happened later on, as engineers sought to avoid any repeat of the Sultana explosion.
Only very few people survived the tragedy to tell the tale. By the time word reached Memphis, most of the people were either dead from the explosion, or had drowned in the cold water. The Sultana was never completely recovered, and its debris still remains in the Mississippi riverbed.
Some artifacts and debris have been salvaged with time to serve as reminders of man-made tragedies that can strike innocent people at any time. The US Maritime department and engineers took notes from the incident so that conditions that made the Sultana explode would never be repeated.
Top Image: The Sultana burns: half those on board would die in the explosion or drown in the Mississippi. Source: Library of Congress / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri