Tragedy of the Sultana

by  Rachael hanak

On April 27, 1865, the Sultana loaded up nearly 2,300 passengers, many of whom were POWs (prisoners of war). The returning Union army officers were eager to get home and the steamboats were eager for the money flow, five dollars per man. Sultana left Vicksburg with a deck so overcrowded, witnesses say the Hurricane deck was sagging. At 2 am, one of the boilers exploded, quickly followed by another boiler. With two out of the three boilers exploding, fire raged on board the sultana. Smokestacks fell on the boat, crushing many men. Those who were able to get off the blazing boat were swept under the current and drowned. By the end of the night, around 1700 people had died. What was left of the Sultana floated a little further down the Mississippi to sink opposite to Memphis, where it remains today. The Sultana was named the worst maritime disaster in American history, although few know it due to the recent end of the civil war which eclipsed Sultana's catastrophic news.

Fact and Figures:

Capacity: 376

Actual number of passengers: 2,300

Losses by states:

Ohio: 791

Indiana: 491

Kentucky: 194

Survivors: between 700-800 people

Injuries resulting in death: 300 died from burns/ exposure

Average Cost of a Steamboat-then: $38,000, now: $570,330.95

What was to Blame...

- Overcrowded by three times its loading capacity

-The first boiler that exploded had sprung a leak and needed a repair. The Captain of the Sultana (Mason) decided for a quick fix instead by ordering a patch of metal to be put in front of the bulge. This negligence caused a series of explosions and the fires that ensued.

Physics behind it.....

As  the furnace used up in the fuel in the fire box, the temperature drops enough to cause the metal tube to contract. With more fuel being added, the tube would've heated up again causing another bulge. This constant stress on the metal would've caused a "collapsed flue" and a resulting explosion.

New Regulations Resulting from the Sultana.....

Steamboat Act of 1852: vessels were required to go through periodic hull and boiler inspections. Vessels were also required to carry basic lifesaving and firefighting equipment. Boats were also required to have certain boiler constructions with safety valves and operating pressures.

Added reinforcement to Steamboat Act of 1852 due to the tragedy of the Sultana: Congress passed a series of steamboat safety laws to aid the Inspection Service's efforts to enforce safety. In 1871 it was further added to which gave the service the authority to issue licenses to pilots, engineers, and masters.


"Steamboat Act of 1852." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Ed.Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk. Vol. 2.Detroit: Gale, 2000. 958-959. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 28 Apr. 2014

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