Thursday, December 19, 2013
The "Titanic" of the Mississippi River.....
Why do you ask that we reference the Mississippi River when we purposefully focus on the Ohio River? It's not because, from a hydrological perspective, the Ohio River is larger at its confluence with the Mississippi thereby making the Mississippi its tributary and no one seems to care. It's not because we've run out of history tied to the Ohio River because the river is flowing with stories. Instead, it's because one the greatest maritime disasters in US maritime history involves a vessel born along the shores of the Ohio River in Ohio.
The SS Sultana exploded, burned and sank in April 1865 on the Mississippi River. However, the Sultana was constructed and began its maritime life in 1863 in Cincinnati, Ohio; a major city on the shores of the Ohio River. The Sultana was a beautiful ship, created by the John Litherbury Shipyard, and was used extensively on the lower Mississippi to transport a variety of items, including Civil War troops. It was its role as a troop transporter that ultimately led to its fiery demise.
In early April 1865, the Sultana prepared to leave New Orleans but encountered boiler problems shortly into the trip. The steamer stopped in Vicksburg for hasty repair. As fate would have it, scores of Union soldiers released from Confederate prisons were in Vicksburg trying to find a way home. Many were from Ohio. The steamer, with a capacity of just over 350, ultimately left the port stuffed to the brim with approximately 2000 people aboard. So when the poorly maintained boiler exploded shortly into the trip up the Mississippi, the resulting casualties were huge. Between the explosion, fire and icy waters, the chances of survival were grim and it is estimated that 1800 people died, with hundreds of others surviving with significant injuries.
The official cause of the tragedy was the poorly maintained boiler. However, years later a Confederate sympathizer suggested, just prior to his death, that he had planted a "coal torpedo" (a funky device invented by the Confederacy to disable and/or sink Union ships). There does not appear to be many who believe this allegation and the most widely accepted version of the tragedy relates to the overcrowding and poorly maintained boiler.
This era in the United States played out significantly on the Ohio River and surrounding area. While visiting the many Villages, Towns and Hamlets along the Ohio River, we encourage you to take the time to "live" the history.