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THE SULTANA MUSEUM
Sultana Museum Marion AK.jpg

Only a few years after the Sultana Disaster, the survivors formed the Sultana Survivor’s Association and worked hard to get national recognition. Although many attempts were made to get a national monument placed in either Washington, DC or Memphis, TN, no such memorial was forthcoming. Eventually, the southern survivors erected their own monument in Mount Olive Cemetery, south of Knoxville, TN but no other monument was ever erected. The Tennessee monument was the only monument dedicated solely to the Sultana Disaster when the last survivor died in September 1941.

In 1987, when Knoxville attorney and Civil War enthusiast Norman Shaw, and others, founded the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends, the hope began once again for national recognition of the disaster. In February 2012, Dr. Louis Intres, a history professor at Arkansas State University and an active member of the new association, put up a display on the Sultana Disaster at the university, using artifacts and memorabilia collected over many years by historian and author Gene Eric Salecker.

 

The next year, 2013, Dr. Intres once again relied mainly upon the Salecker artifacts and memorabilia to put up a display in Marion, Arkansas, the closest city to the final resting place of the Sultana. With Marion located across the Mississippi River from Memphis, and along a major highway connecting Memphis and Little Rock and St. Louis, the exhibit drew people from all over the United States as well as a few foreign countries.

In 2014, acting upon the popularity of his previous two exhibits, Dr. Intres began working with Mayor Frank Fogleman of Marion to put up an interim Sultana Disaster Museum in the city of Marion. Several sites were scouted and it was finally determined that the temporary museum would be housed in a small building near the historic Crittenden County Courthouse. In addition to housing the Salecker artifacts and memorabilia, the museum also contains a 1/24 scale 14-foot replica of the steamboat Sultana as she would have appeared prior to her being overcrowded with all of the paroled ex-prisoners-of-war. This model, built by Gene Eric Salecker, is the centerpiece of the museum, along with a wall of names of all of the known men, women, and children that were on board the Sultana when she exploded on April 27, 1865.

The grand opening of the interim Sultana Disaster Museum, located at 140 Washington Ave, Marion, AR, 72364, was in April 2015, the 150th anniversary of the disaster. The purpose of the museum is to inform the American people, and in fact the entire world, of the greatest maritime disaster in American history, and to keep alive the memory of all of the people who were on board the vessel on that terrible night of April 27, 1865. In keeping with that purpose, many new and interesting items have been added to the original collection over the years, including artifacts connected with the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends. The museum is a treasure trove of not only Sultana-related items but also steamboat memorabilia from a past generation.

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Realizing that the interim museum was being housed and maintained in a small, temporary building, the Sultana Historical Preservation Society (SHPS) was formed to look for a permanent home.  After considering a number of sites, it was finally determined that the permanent museum would be located in a historic 1938 brick building that had been used as the Marion school gymnasium and auditorium in downtown Marion, along the main thoroughfare in town.

The permanent museum will include an auditorium, orientation theater, multi-purpose lobby, gift shop, research classroom, learning classroom, administrative area, temporary exhibit gallery, and a huge main exhibit gallery. Featured within the main exhibit gallery will be areas telling of the importance of steamboats on commerce along America’s waterways in the early 1800s, the impact of the Civil War on the waterways, life in Civil War prisons, the hope and exhilaration of release from prison, the loading of the Sultana, the explosion, the rescues, the inquiries and court-martial trial, the aftermath and reunions, and the Sultana today.

All who are involved with the creation of the museum imagine that the permanent museum will be opened in 2023, the 160th anniversary of the building and launching of the Sultana.