Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Treasure Tales, Tennessee

This is a photograph of the Sultana showing the decks overcrowded with passengers. The photo was taken on April 26, 1865, at Helena, Arkansas. This was less than 24 hours before the ship exploded and sank on the flooded Mississippi River. (Original picture from Library of Congress).
OK, this one is going to be a split between Tennessee and Arkansas. I will let the intrepid treasure hunter that wants to do the nitty gritty research on this one decide exactly which state this one should be filed under.

On April 27, 1865 the steamship Sultana exploded and sank, killing an estimated 1700 people. Yes, one thousand seven hundred! More than what died when the Titanic sank. There were a total of 2400 people on board this ship when it exploded. Of those 2400, at least 2000 of the passengers were Union soldiers trying to return home from the war after being released from Confederate prison camps. I should mention that the ship had a capacity of only 376 so it was severely overloaded with passengers. There were reports that the ships safe contained $150,000 in gold and paper money and that one passenger alone was supposedly carrying $70,000 in gold coins when the ship sank. Another passenger, identified as Samuel B. Spikes was said to be carrying his life savings with him, $18,000 in gold.

The Sultana was on a trip from New Orleans to St. Louis. The Sultana was a 1000-ton steamer with four boilers that were in need of repair. A hasty patch job was done on the leaking boilers in Vicksburg, Mississippi and then ship continued on to Memphis where the ship took on more coal. Sailing out of Memphis around midnight it was about 2:00 a.m. when the boilers exploded. The ship was approximately 7-9 miles up stream from Memphis, TN.

When the boilers exploded it killed several people instantly from the scalding steam. The pressure from the explosions killed other passengers immediately or blew them overboard where they drowned or died from hypothermia. Hot coals from the boilers set the rest of the ship on fire and the burning mass drifted to the river bank near Mound City, Arkansas. It was said the blaze was big enough it could be seen from Memphis.

In 1982 there was a newspaper account that spoke of a local archaeological expedition that uncovered what was believed to be part of the wreckage of the Sultana. Blackened wood deck planks and timbers were found about 32 feet under a soybean field on the Arkansas side, about four miles from Memphis. What’s that you say? A steam ship in the middle of a field? Yes! The mighty Mississippi has changed its course over the 143 years since the disaster and the remains of the ship are now on (in) dry land. The main channel now flows about two miles east of its 1865 position. This could be a major discovery for anybody willing to do the research and get financing for a recovery providing the archies haven’t staked a claim. With that much metal it should be easy to find with the right equipment. Besides the gold, there could be thousands of valuable artifacts waiting to be found.

If you are wondering if this is even possible I would say most definitely yes! There was a group several years back in the Kansas City area that found and recovered a ship that had also sank in the 1800s. This ship was also on dry land and the find was amazing. They found thousands of artifacts in the ship that were still in tact and in good shape. Those items are now in a museum all about that ship. A museum built by the people who found the ship.

I will also say that I haven’t done any follow-up research on this to determine what the status of the ship location is since the archies did their dig in 1982. I’m sure they recovered something but they probably weren’t looking for gold, at least they weren't telling anybody about looking for gold.

Good Luck!

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