SS Sultana: Mystery at Sea

Blog1I often wonder why some historical events are well remembered, while others are all but forgotten. Is it the magnitude of the event, like the destruction of the Twin Towers? Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.  Or perhaps it’s the personal stories that accompany an event, as in the sinking of the Titanic? I’ve been pondering this and it seems to me that, when it comes to reserving a place in the history books, timing is important. In short, if you want to make sure an event is remembered, it helps if it happens during a slow news cycle.

Today we’re going to talk about an oft forgotten historical event that had an impressive magnitude. It had plenty of mystery and intrigue. The personal stories are captivating. It also had the misfortune of occurring during one of the busiest news cycles this country has ever known. We’re talking about the sinking of the SS Sultana, which happened in April of 1865, in what was one whale of a busy news month! General Lee had surrendered. President Lincoln was assassinated. John Wilkes Booth was killed. The nation was desperately seeking balance and normality. But the story of the Sultana is far too big for us to simply let it go down with the ship!

Time Keeps Flowing Like a River

Blog2What a difference a half hour can make! At 1:30am on April 27, 1865, the steamboat Sultana was cruising down the Mississippi River, near Memphis, Tennessee. The estimated 2,400 people aboard consisted of recently released Union Army prisoners of war, other Union soldiers, some civilian passengers who had traveled to accompany their family members home, and the ship’s crew.

When you’re on your way home after having been a prisoner of war, it’s probably easy to be lulled into believing your worst days are behind you. But, a lot can change in a half hour! By 2:00am on the same day, the passengers of the Sultana were flying through the air, clinging to life on stray pieces of debris, or sinking to the bottom of Ol’ Man River like a bag of rocks.

Approximately 1,800 people lost their lives in the disaster, which is widely recognized as the worst accident in U.S. maritime history.  That’s close to 300 more casualties than the Titanic can claim, but oddly, the story didn’t even make front-page news. No one was ever held responsible for the wreck and the mystery behind the sinking of the Sultana was never definitively solved, though there are some interesting theories.

Boiler Alert!

Blog5One thing is for sure; there was an explosion of explosive proportions in the boiler room. Though it was primarily carrying soldiers, the Sultana was not owned by the U.S. military. It was privately owned and had been contracted by the War Department to transport POWs home. Now, a boat filled with soldiers doesn’t simply explode without some investigation being launched. While survivors were still being dragged out of the river on hunks of driftwood, representatives of the War Department were on the scene questioning eyewitnesses.

The explosion, by some eyewitness accounts, created a gaping hole in the wooden deck. Without the boilers to support the smokestacks, the smokestacks fell. One fell smack-dab through the newly created hole in the deck. But, why did at least one of the four boilers explode?

A crack in one of the boilers had been hastily repaired before the Sultana picked up passengers. The man doing the patch job had been ordered to do the impossible—to perform a 72-hour repair in less than a day.  You may be thinking that’s the end of the story. And you might have been right if not for the reason behind rushing the repair work. Greed!

Keeping a Head Above Water

Blog6The government was paying a fare of $5 per man for passage on the Sultana. And steamboat captains were offering a kickback of $1.15 per passenger to any corrupt army officer willing to fill their boats. The Sultana was approved to carry 376 passengers. Hmm… $1.15 x 376 = $432.40. That’s not a bad profit, but, as I’ve already mentioned, there were about 2,400 people aboard the Sultana. Even subtracting the crewmembers, that equaled a lot more profit for a corrupt officer!

People were crammed onto the boat like sardines! The newly reinforced Hurricane deck was no match for the weight of the passengers. The deck sagged like a hammock with an overweight occupant. Did all of the sagging cause a sort of collapse into the boiler room? Possibly. But that’s still not the end of the theories.

Drop a Bombshell

Blog3Other people believed the explosion was the result of something far more sinister than a faulty boiler. There was talk of a bomb placed by a Confederate spy. At least one survivor felt a Confederate sympathizer had placed a torpedo in the coal in order to kill a boatload of Union soldiers before Johnny could go marching home again. That idea actually isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.

The boat had arrived in Memphis on April 26th, where it had crossed the river to Hopefield, Arkansas. In Hopefield, the crew of the Sultana loaded 1,000 bushels of coal onto the steamship from midnight to about 1:00am on the 27th. That would have been a prime opportunity for a Confederate boat burner to sabotage the steamboat. Is this simply a crazy conspiracy theory? Maybe not.

According to Union documents, boat burners destroyed over 60 steamboats during the Civil War. With the help of small torpedoes disguised to look like pieces of coal, the wooden boats went up like kindling at a bomb fire.Blog3a

Enter, stage left: A Confederate spy named Robert Louden. Louden had escaped from a Union prison in 1864, after being found guilty by a military tribunal of burning the steamboat Ruthland, and causing the death of 26 passengers. Louden was still at large in 1865. Twenty-three years after the Sultana burned, an article was published in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat claiming that in 1867, a drunken Robert Louden had bragged about sabotaging the Sultana. If true, it was the largest act of terrorism in the U.S. until the events of September 11, 2001.

The Rest is History

So, what caused the explosion of the Sultana? Was it the result of an improperly patched boiler? Was it because of the severe overcrowding on the boat? Or was it the sabotage of someone who wasn’t ready to embrace a Confederate surrender? The truth is, we may never know. But it’s worth contemplating… On a slow news day.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia


The WPA Murals: State of the Art

Blog1Cue the theme song to “The Waltons” because we’re traveling back to1935. Allow me to set the stage for you: In Walton’s Mountain terms, those quaint old moonshine making spinsters, the Baldwin ladies, were busy churning out jar after jar of the recipe. On and off of Walton’s Mountain, the U.S. had been smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression of 1929. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal had been going strong since 1933 and his “alphabet soup” of recovery programs was continually being stirred to reveal more noodle letters.

Blog1aThe government’s previous attempts at providing relief to starving artists had fallen flat. There had been the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), which lasted from 1933-34, and the Treasury Department Section of Painting and Sculpture (TDSPS), which was created in late1934. After the they flopped, there was doubt as to whether or not the government should be involved in the creation of art, on any level. But some U.S. politicians still had the vision of merging art and patriotism. So in the spring of 1935, President Roosevelt started yet another alphabet program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which funded a division called the Federal Art Program (FAP), with the goal of creating jobs for unemployed artists to beautify the country and to inspire Americans with patriotic works of art. Yes, while John Boy Walton was sitting up in his room writing in his notebooks about his family and contemplating that giant mole on his cheek, some fortunate artists were being put to work.

Nice Work If You Can Get It

Blog2It only took a few months before more than 1,100 artists were working for the Mural Division of the Federal Art Program. While the WPA’s Arts Programs employed more than 40,000 artists, including painters, writers, dancers, musicians, actors, and photographers, it is the Mural Division we’re going to focus on today.

Blog3In order for artists to be considered for the Mural Division, they had to confirm they were impoverished. It was lucky for the American public that future notable artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Arshile Gorky and Thomas Hart Benton could be confirmed as impoverished! After they were officially declared starving, the artists then had to submit samples of their work. Approved artists received a stipend of $24 per week. So they packed up their brushes and oil paints and set off to paint the towns and cities of the U.S.A.

Blog4According to the guidelines set forth, qualified workers were not to be discriminated against for any reason. That meant there were women and minority artists. Shocking! There were also artists whose political views were more progressive than most of the folks living on Walton’s Mountain and in real life locations across the country. That was even more shocking!

Art History

Here are a few odd and end bits of art history surrounding the Federal Arts Program:Blog5

  • It was the work of Diego Rivera, and the Mexican Muralist Movement, which first provided inspiration for Roosevelt’s program. Diego Rivera was one of the leaders of the Mexican labor movement of the 1920s. He was a member of the Communist party whose murals often included a tax on the church and capitalism. Though his political views didn’t scream, “red, white and blue,” he was commissioned to paint a mural of monumental proportions for Henry Ford. The Rockefellers also commissioned him to paint a mural for the lobby of the RCA building in Rockefeller Center.Blog6
  • Surprisingly, even though the Federal Art Project was about providing work for down and out Americans, not all of the artists were Americans. It wasn’t until the summer of 1937 that the government announced all WPA workers had to be U.S. citizens. It was that declaration that prompted Armenian born Arshile Gorky to become as American as Uncle Sam.
  • Even though some of the world’s greatest abstract artists painted murals for the WPA, the project favored a realistic, representational style. So, don’t expect to find a Pollock mural in the classic drip-style gracing some Post Office wall in Idaho.

Workers in Progress

Blog7WPA murals went up in a variety of federal buildings, including libraries, schools, hospitals, courthouses, and post offices.  Many WPA artists paid tribute to the American worker and the grandeur of the nation’s landscape. After all, it was their job to lift the spirits of citizens who were feeling the effects of the Great Depression. And while some probably were not as uplifting as Ma Baldwin’s apple pie recipe, that was because they told the truth about America. Some were uncomfortably factual and realistic, and some told a story that was politically charged and idealistic, garnering criticism by conservatives who didn’t think the government had any business funding such programs.

Blog8In 1934, when muralists at San Francisco’s Coit Tower featured images of the Russian newspaper, The Daily Worker, and Karl Marx’s book, Das Kapital, it did not fare at all well with the locals. There was one mural that featured an impoverished family panning for gold as an affluent family watched them from the sidelines. People were so outraged that Coit Tower was kept closed for weeks.

State of the Art

Of the 2,500 murals created by the WPA, approximately one third of them have been lost. How do you lose a mural? Well, many of them were simply painted over. While many of the murals were painted directly onto walls, others were painted on canvas, which were then attached to walls. In short, any missing canvas murals, which have survived, could be absolutely anywhere.Blog9

In a cringe-worthy turn of events, the government auctioned off thousands of WPA-funded paintings in December of 1943. At a warehouse in Queens, New York, paintings were sold by the pound. My word! Can you imagine waving your auction paddle to purchase three pounds of Jackson Pollock’s? A New York plumber purchased a wad of the canvas paintings to wrap his pipes for insulation. One can only imagine what treasures were lost.

Job Well Done

Blog10Besides the 2,500 murals, WPA artists completed 1,700 sculptures, 108,000 easel paintings, and 240,000 art prints and posters in the program’s eight-year existence. In 1939, the project began scaling back, laying off some of its artists. By 1943, employment was on an upswing, thanks to WWII. There no longer seemed to be a need for a program designed for the purpose of providing employment opportunities to artists, and the WPA and its Federal Arts Project ended.

Postscript/Good Night, John Boy

Blog11In a noteworthy postscript, a 1975 agreement between the U.S. Postal Service and the Smithsonian Institution made provisions to protect all existing WPA murals: They were to be relocated to the museum when a post office closed or moved, but the works of art would still remain federal property. Cue the ending music. Good night, John Boy. Good night, Mary Ellen. Good night, Grandpa. Good night, Federal Arts Program. Fade to black.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900: Taking The City By Storm

Blog1As news arrives of Hurricane Joachim making landfall on the East coast, there is no denying that hurricane season is upon us again, and I am reminded of hurricanes past. It’s hard to believe it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina blew through the Mississippi Gulf Coast and Louisiana. Thinking back on Katrina made me wonder about some of the other most damaging U.S. hurricanes. And by “wonder,” I mean it made me type, “most damaging U.S. hurricanes,” into Google. That’s when I discovered that Katrina isn’t the only hurricane with a recent anniversary. It has been just a smidge more than 115 years since the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, one of the worst natural disasters in American History.

In honor of Mother Nature and her wrath, we’re going to take a look back at the destructive path left by the 1900 Galveston Hurricane—a storm that is so old it didn’t even get a decent name, like future potential storms, Fiona, Shary, and Igor. As a matter of fact, most Galvestonians who survived the storm simply referred to it as just that: The Storm.

Take the City by Storm

Blog10In 1900, the coastal city of Galveston, Texas wasn’t much smaller than it is today. With close to 37,000 residents, the city located on Galveston Island was a booming town and a desirable tourist destination. The beach, which was level with the surf, allowed the wealthy that flocked to the shallow waters to enjoy easy access to “therapeutic bathing” in the Gulf of Mexico.

Blog11Galveston was also the most important seaport in the state. While most people may not have realized it, Galveston was very important to the national economy. More than 70% of the country’s cotton crops traveled through the port of Galveston. It was one of the wealthiest cities in the nation and the first city in Texas to have electricity and telephones. By all appearances, Galveston was the goose that laid golden egg, but folks were about to discover it was also a sitting duck!

Blog1bIt’s not that some residents hadn’t recommended that Galveston should build a seawall to protect the city. But, hey, they had never faced any serious damage from high tides and hurricanes before 1900. Even Galveston’s chief meteorologist, Isaac Cline, was on record as saying that the thought of a hurricane seriously damaging Galveston was “a crazy idea.” So, Galvestonians continued basking in the sun and counting their money.

Isaac’s Storm

Blog14Isaac Cline must have thought he had the world by the tail when he landed his job with the U.S. Weather Service station in Galveston. He was living the good life in one of the most important cities in the country. But he may have started doubting his choice on at 5am on Sept. 8th, when he observed water from the Gulf inching over the low areas of the island. From his vantage point, he took note as the winds increased, the barometer dropped and the storm swells rose. He hopped on his horse and began riding up and down the beach like some primitive National Weather Service alert. He warned visitors to go home and asked beach residents to get to higher ground. The highest ground available was only about nine feet higher than the lowest ground. But, any port in a storm!

Blog8Cline kept in contact with the Weather Service’s Washington D.C. office until telegraph lines went down in the afternoon. He estimated that winds exceeded 120 mph, though it is believed he underestimated the speed by at least 10-20 mph.  Having done all he could do, he slogged through the rising water to his home.

Blog15The weather expert was not immune to the destruction that was unfolding around him . . . a trolley trestle broke and crashed into Cline’s house. He managed to save himself and his six-year-old daughter. His brother Joseph saved Isaac’s other two daughters. But Cline watched as his pregnant wife drowned in the turbulent waters.

Come Hell or High Water


Blog1aMeanwhile, many of Galveston’s residents were facing similar fates. They might have wanted to batten down the hatches, but there were no hatches to batten down! The city’s infrastructure and architecture had never been built to accommodate the frightful storm that was upon them. There was no way to ever have anticipated the power of this storm. The worst of the storm lasted from 8 pm until midnight, when a 15.5-foot storm surge swept across the island. Houses and other buildings collapsed. A giant wall of debris, standing at least two stories high pushed its way from one end of the island to the other. As the wall moved, it grew like a snowball rolling downhill—gaining force and momentum.

Blog2Those fancy, new-fangled electric lights that normally illuminated the town were of no use. They were the first to fail, and the city was plunged into darkness. Aside from an occasional lightning flash, Galveston was pitch-black. Ironically, the same wall of debris that destroyed so many buildings protected others. When the wall stopped moving, it protected the buildings on the other side of the island from being tossed about like Popsicle stick structures. It is said, however, that no building in Galveston was without damage.

Blog3Hollywood film director King Vidor, a Galveston native, whose debut film in 1913 was “Hurricane in Galveston,” recalled the storm years later. “I could see the waves crash against the streetcar trestle, then shoot into the air as high as telephone poles. Higher. My mother didn’t speak as we watched three or four waves. I was only five then, but I remember now that it seemed as if we were in a bowl looking up toward the level of the sea. … I felt as if the sea was going to break over the edge of the bowl and come pouring down upon us.”

Blog18The home of George Sealy, a successful banker, railroad executive and philanthropist, stood at Broadway and 25th Street in the city’s Strand District, at the highest elevation in the city. It became a place of refuge for some 400 storm-tossed refugees who gathered there during the height of the storm, as water poured into its basement. Some refugees tied their boats to fences that surrounded the Sealy home and swam to the house, and ultimately to safety.

Blog19St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, which was situated directly on the Gulf, received the heaviest blow. Ten nuns and ninety children lived there, and as the storm tide rose the nuns prepared the children for the worst. The nuns cut clothes line into sections and tied the children to them, and as the main tidal surge hit, they tried to calm the children by singing the hymn “Queen of the Waves.” All but three boys were killed. Hours after the flood receded, the three boys awoke in a tree, 20 blocks from shore.Blog17

The death toll estimates from the hurricane ranged from 6,000-12,000. Most sources quoted 8,000 is a fairly accurate estimate. Everyone in Galveston lost someone they loved on that night.

The Aftermath

Blog5The aftermath of The Storm is often thought to be Galveston’s finest hour. Even as they buried their dead, for most residents, there was no question as to whether or not they would rebuild. The Red Cross was a fledgling organization at the time, but volunteers swooped in under the leadership of their 78-year-old founder, Clara Barton. Volunteers, working alongside residents, began a massive reconstruction of the city.

Blog9That seawall, which the experts had discouraged, was finally built. The city was raised to an elevation of about sixteen feet at its highest point. Many buildings were raised on jacks. Canals were dug. Catwalks were built to connect houses and buildings. They did everything they could to prepare for the next storm, which was a certainty. Residents had the opportunity to test out their preventative measures when the Galveston Hurricane of 1915 hit. While the damage was extensive, the loss of life was limited to 275.

Maybe it’s just as well the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 didn’t have a cutesy name. The survivors could say they had weathered The Storm and came out battered but stronger.Blog13

Thomas A. Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, traveled to Galveston to film the aftermath. Here is the remarkable documentary footage.

Happy Trails,

Anita Lequoia