Marion Brings All Hands on Deck for Sultana Exhibit (Tourism | Winner, Between 5,000-20,000)

On a chilly April night in 1865, a paddleboat called the Sultana was making its way up the Mississippi River toward St. Louis. It had begun its journey just six days before in New Orleans and was overcrowded with mostly Union soldiers, heading home to the north. Already during that historic month, events had occurred that would change the nation forever – The Civil War closing with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Gen. Ulysses Grant on April 9 followed by President Lincoln’s assassination on April 14. On April 26, Lincoln’s assassin was killed inside a Virginia barnhouse. The next day, the Sultana paddleboat would meet its fate as the worst maritime disaster to happen within the United States.

The ship had just passed Memphis, Tenn., in the early hours of April 27 when one of its four boilers exploded, blowing victims into the chilly water or burning them alive. Many casualties who were pulled from the waters would be brought to Memphis hospitals, cared for in some cases by doctors who a month earlier had been enemies of war.

By dawn, the remains of the Sultana had burned and run aground on the west bank of the river, near present-day Marion. While the official death toll set by the U.S. Customs Service was 1,547, some estimates put the figure closer to 1,800 fatalities.

In 2011, Professor Louis Intres of Arkansas State University met with Marion Mayor Frank Fogelman and Diane McAdoo of the Marion Chamber of Commerce to discuss the idea of the city hosting an exhibition of Sultana artifacts. Intres and Gene Salecker, who had also collected items from the Sultana, decided to collaborate with the city for a March 2012 opening with more showings during the summer of 2013.

The first daunting task for Marion officials was to find a secure location where the one-of-a-kind artifacts would be safe. The business community stepped up in a variety of ways.

After an ideal location was donated by the Singer Family, the city proceeded with making the premises safer by installing a security system given by Bass Security and having the Marion Police Department station their Eye In the The Sky, a portable camera, to monitor the site 24 hours a day.

Time was limited between getting approval to show the exhibit and when it was scheduled to open. The city prepared the inside of the building to become a museum. Mud Island River Park in Memphis donated display cases for the artifacts. Banners were made, billboards were put up, posters were created and brochures were distributed. Newspapers around the region published articles about the exhibit. The Advertising & Promotions Committee set a generous budget for getting the word out.

The exhibit opened its doors and shortly thereafter, saw visitors from a Civil War fair that also featured actors dressed in period clothing and a panel discussion of the accident by noted historians.

“It is by the grace of our wonderful city, departments and volunteers that this event has happened twice and will be a permanent part of Marion,” said McAdoo. “The project has been a success.”

For that success, Marion is the winner in the 2013 Arkansas Business City of Distinction Tourism Development category for cities between 5,000 and 20,000 people.

More than 3,200 people have explored the exhibit. Television crews from PBS and the Travel Channel have visited Marion and featured the Sultana on national television. A permanent Sultana exhibit is expected to bring new visitors into a city that thousands drive past on nearby Interstate 55 every day.

Since its initial opening, more than $3,000 has been donated to help fund a permanent museum. A former bank building on the National Registry of Historic Places has been offered to the city by the Crittenden County Quorum Court. Money is currently being raised to restore the building and make it compliant with the American Disabilities Act.

The museum is scheduled to be opened by early 2014. Plans are already underway for the tragedy’s 150th anniversary in 2015 with many descendants of the victims invited to commemorate the ship in Marion.

While the tragedy of the Sultana may have originally been overlooked in that historic month, its story now attracts welcome attention to Marion.