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The Wreck of the Sultana

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The worst marine disaster in the history of the United States was the Titanic and its iceberg back in 1912, right? Wrong. That record is another claimed by the Mighty Mississippi.

At two o'clock in the morning of April 27th, 1865, all three boilers on the steamboat, Sultana, blew up as she was passing Paddy's Old Hen and Chickens Island, six miles upstream from Memphis. One thousand, eight hundred passengers and crew died aboard the Sultana or drowned in the frigid flood waters, three hundred more than on the Titanic.

The two disasters bore remarkable similarities, especially in their crews' lack of respect for the destructive capacity of nature. The captain of the unsinkable Titanic decided to navigate the iceberg field at night. Captain Mason of the Sultana knew a boiler was dangerously in need of repair, and still loaded his boat with 2,500 passengers, far more than its safe limit of 376. The Titanic, designed to carry 64 lifeboats, left with only 16. The Sultana carried only 70 life jackets, not even enough to save the crew. 

But there the comparison ends. The Titanic lived on in books and films. The Sultana has been forgotten. It was in the wrong place, out on a Western river, a region that received scant attention from Eastern press. Its timing was wrong. In 1865, at the end of a Civil War, the nation was used to death. President Lincoln had been assassinated just a week earlier, and John Wilkes Booth had been shot the day before.

Still, had she carried the right passengers, the Sultana might have competed with the Titanic for a place in the history books, but there was no comparison. The Titanic was filled with rich and famous passengers whose names were stamped on buildings, corporations, and banks. The Sultana had only Union soldiers heading north towards home from Southern prisons such as Andersonville, 2,500 of them packed side by side on every deck.

In the early hours of April 27th, 1865, more of these Union soldiers would die on the Sultana than in all but four of the great Civil War battles. Today, the smallest artifact from the Titanic—a spoon that a Vanderbilt might have held—commands a high price, but for 1,800 boys in blue, not even a monument.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.