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Disaster of the Sultana.


This is perhaps the most frightful disaster ever recorded in the annals of steam navigation. It is stated that over fifteen hundred (1,500) lives were lost. The Sultana was built at Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1863. She was of 660 38-100 tons burden, (old measurement;) had accommodations for seventy-six (76) cabin passengers, and three hundred (300) deck  passengers. She had four high-pressure boilers, 18 feet long and 46 inches in diameter, made of iron 17-48 of an inch in thickness; each boiler had 24 return flues, 5 inches in diameter, made of iron one-eighth of an inch thick. The Sultana was inspected in St. Louis, on the 12th day of April, 1865, by the local board of inspectors, composed of John Maguire and John Shaffer. The boilers were subjected to a hydrostatic pressure of two hundred and ten (210) pounds to the square inch. The working steam pressure allowed was one hundred and forty-five (145) pounds to the square inch. The Sultana had two engines, with cylinders 25 inches in diameter and 8 feet stroke; had three forcing pumps, six inches stroke, and respectively 5, 6 and 7 inches in diameter: two of them were worked by hand. The explosion occurred on the 27th day of April, 1865, at about seven miles above Memphis, Tennessee. There was no local board at that time at Memphis. As soon as the news of the terrible occurrence reached St. Louis, by telegraph, I, as supervising inspector of this, the fourth district, considered it my duty, as prescribed by the 22d section of the act of Congress of 1852, to repair immediately to the scene of the calamity. What urged me to take immediate steps is, that on all such occasions the surviving parties leave for parts unknown as soon as they can procure the means to do so. This is especially the case with those that are supposed to be best informed of the probable cause of the accident. Arriving at Memphis, Tennessee, I found that Major General Washburn had instituted a military commission to inquire into the matter. They had made little progress, and had concluded to go to Vicksburg, where they had good ground to believe more information could be gathered. I was invited by General Washburn to join the party, and did so.  At Vicksburg, one of the first witnesses put under oath was R. G. Taylor, an experienced boiler-maker. He stated that he had, at the request of the first engineer, examined and repaired the middle larboard boiler of the Sultana, on her up trip to Memphis. He states that he found, on examination of the larboard boiler, that two sheets were badly bulged out. He was told by the captain that both sheets would be cut out at St. Louis, and he (Taylor) was to cut out only a piece 26 by 11 inches, which he did. He was not permitted to force back the bulge, as he desired, but had to fit his patch to the boiler as it was. The patch he riveted on was only one-quarter of an inch thick. To all this the first engineer consented. This was on the part of the engineer a gross violation of the law, the body of the boiler being made of iron 17-48 of one inch, and inspected, and the safety-valves regulated for iron of that thickness, and the pressure allowed was the extreme limit. Had the boiler been inspected after the repairs, the pressure allowed by law would have been 100. 43 pounds  of working pressure per square inch, as prescribed for boilers 46 inches in diameter, made of iron inch thick.  From Vicksburg to Memphis the Sultana travelled at her usual speed, which shows that the usual pressure of steam was used. The foregoing is sufficient to explain the cause or causes of the explosion. Boilers of a construction not adapted to the water of the Mississippi river, the flues being set in  zigzag, which makes them very difficult to clean; the rapid accumulation of sediment renders them easily subject to be burned, or at least overheated; this seems to have been the case of the Sultana. The boilers were imperfectly repaired at Vicksburg, for which the engineer alone can be held responsible.  There is another feature in this disaster that deserves to be mentioned the large amount of human beings crowded on this boat. The law limits the number of passengers that a vessel is allowed to carry. That law, like many others, has  during the war been set aside for military necessities. Civil officers had to be silent, and large numbers of soldiers have frequently been crowded on small crafts. This war was already ended when this inhuman shipment was made, and nobody pretended that there was a necessity. The Sultana left New Orleans with about 250 passengers and crew, and in the hold about 250 hogsheads of sugar.  At Vicksburg 2,000 released Union prisoners and 60 horses and mules were  shipped on her, while the certificate allowed her only three hundred and seventy-six (376) passengers, all told. The Pauline Carroll, a steamer of the same size, was lying at the wharf at Vicksburg, on her way to St. Louis.  Hit officers of the P. Carroll were anxious to get one thousand (1,000) of those passengers at the regular government rate. The agent of that boat even offered a premium, as he declared himself, but to no avail. It was decided that horse, mule and human freight must be crowded in one heap.

 J. J.  WITZIG, Supervising Inspector fourth District.

source: Executive Documents printed by Order of The House of Representatives, During the First Session of the Thirty-Ninth Congress, 186566, published 1866




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July 17, 2007 -  Added A Federal Railroad Adventure - "Andrews Raiders"
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May 9 - Added article: Our Captured Correspndent
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May 7, 2007 - Steamboat Sultana pages created