What, exactly, are we remembering when we think about the Sultana? There are so many aspects to the story. But I believe the main thread of the disaster and its aftermath can be summarized in three words or phrases:
Tragedy - The word "tragedy" is defined as "an event causing great suffering, destruction, and distress . . . ." The explosion, burning, and sinking of the Sultana meets that definition. Had the boat hit a river snag and slowly sank with only the crew aboard, giving them time to safely abandon the vessel, the owners would have suffered a material loss due to the destruction. They would also, no doubt, have been distressed to lose their investment. The actual event, however, is called the worst maritime disaster in U.S. history. Not due to the loss of the boat and cargo, but rather to the extensive death toll involving almost half of those on board as well as injuries to the majority of the survivors. The tragedy was human, made all the more grievous by the second word we need to consider.
Preventable - The problems that led up to the disaster were for the most part preventable. Misapplied boiler technology and poor equipment maintenance along with a captain's penchant for racing his boat against other steamboats on the Mississippi River combined to doom the Sultana mechanically. The river's tendency for flooding, though uncontrollable in 1865, added to the prolonged severity of the disaster. But perhaps the cruelest, and most avoidable, part of the entire event was the indifference, greed, and corruption on the part of those who had direct control over how many people were loaded onto the Sultana. The official government investigations, convened shortly after the catastrophe, tried to pin blame on one man, J. Cass Mason. In the end, little was said or done to acknowledge that this atrocity need never have happened.
Turning point - If anything "good" came about as a result of the disaster, it would have to be the formation of The Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company. Today it is known as Hartford Steam Boiler/Munich Re. Located in Hartford, Connecticut, the company was founded in 1866 in large part as a response to the Sultana tragedy. The company's mission was not only to inspect and insure the boilers used in industry, but also to seek answers as to why these boiler explosions (an average of one every four days) were taking place. The causes, due to lack of scientific understanding, were often thought of as "acts of God". Hartford Steam Boiler was instrumental in changing that perception, resulting in the saving of countless lives. Having recently celebrated its 150th anniversary, Hartford Steam Boiler/Munich Re continues to help companies around the world safeguard their equipment, and human, assets.
In summary, what we remember as we think about the Sultana comes down to a tragic, human event that was preventable yet led to a major improvement in the way a vital part of our nation's industry was conducted. That, coupled with who and why we remember, helps us have a better understanding of the story and its place in history. Next time, we'll ponder the question, "When do we remember the Sultana?" Stay tuned!