The Sultana photographed near Helena, Arkansas, on or about April 26, 1865.
“Smoke on the water and fire in the sky/Smoke on the water and fire in the sky ...”
The above lyrics are the hook to British rock group Deep Purple’s timeless hit “Smoke on the Water,” off their 1972 album “Machine Head.”
The heavy guitar-bass intro to the song, dunt-dunt-dunt . . . du-du-da-dunt . . . dunt-dunt-dunt . . . du-du, lets the listener know, right off, that the song has a serious theme.
And what you’re about to read, indeed, is serious and, also, involves water.
If a historian asked what is the worst maritime disaster (happened on the water) in U.S. history, what would your answer be?
I wager that most would say the “Titanic.”
The RMS Titanic was a British passenger liner that sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15, 1912, after colliding with an iceberg during her maiden voyage from Southampton, United Kingdom, to New York City.
On the disastrous first voyage, the Titanic, the largest vessel afloat, and deemed architecturally “unsinkable,” carried approximately 2,220 passengers and crew.
The sinking of the Titanic caused the deaths of more than 1,500 people, and, yes, it is one of the deadliest – most talked about, most written about – maritime disasters of all time.
If nothing else, most have seen the 1997 film “Titanic,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett, which did well at the box office and won numerous awards.
But back to the question: What is the worst maritime disaster in U.S. History?
Well, it’s not the sinking of the Titanic. Rather, by all accounts, it is the “SS Sultana.”
The Sultana was a Mississippi River steamboat “paddlewheeler,” which reportedly had a legal capacity of 375 passengers.
However, the U. S. government had contracted with the Sultana to transport former Union prisoners of war – just released from Confederate prison camps – back to their homes.
En route from New Orleans to St. Louis, the Sultana, on April 21, 1865, made a pit stop in Vicksburg, Miss., to take on more passengers and have the steam boilers repaired.
Since time equated money, and proper repairs would’ve taken about three days, cursory, insufficient repairs were made in a day.
It has been written that during its time in port at Vicksburg, more than 2,000 men – ex-prisoners, merchants, drifters, etc. – muscled, bribed and threatened their way on board the Sultana.
These 2,000 men were in addition to the crew, passengers and livestock already on the steamer.
On April 27, 1865, at around 2 a.m., the Sultana, traveling down the Mississippi River, exploded approximately eight miles north of Memphis. Records indicate that of the estimated 2,500 aboard, approximately 1,600 died in the explosion.
The cause of the explosion was attributed to a leaky steam boiler, which, as mentioned, had been shoddily repaired in too-quick an effort to get the Sultana up and running.
Some theorize that working steam pressure was severely exceeded in an attempt to overcome the strong river current and to compensate for a heavy load, which was six times over capacity.
Thus, much like a bomb, the boilers simply blew up.
The catastrophic explosion flung many of the passengers on deck into the water and destroyed a large section of the ship.
Hot coals scattered by the explosion immediately turned the remaining structure into a hellish inferno, the flames of which were visible to residents of Memphis, some eight miles away.
Though it’s no excuse in 2013, this Sultana disaster was originally overshadowed in the press by another horrific, headline-grabbing event: John Wilkes Booth, President Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, had been killed the day before, April 26, 1865.
Memphis is widely known as the “Home of the Blues.”
For sure, April 27, 1865 was a “blue day” in Memphis because on that day, there was smoke on the water and fire in the sky.
To contact Mike Vinson, e-mail him at email@example.com.