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The 1865 Sultana disaster has been described as America's Titanic – and it remains the worst maritime incident in US history in terms of lives lost. By Andrew Linington
The 1,719grt paddle steamer was only two years old when it caught fire and sank in the Mississippi River, with the loss of as many as 1,800 lives, after three of its four boilers exploded.
The side-wheeled Sultana had been built in 1863 by the John Litherbury Boatyard in Cincinnati, and was used to carry passengers and freight – mainly cotton – between St Louis and New Orleans.
Steamboats were a popular means of travel, but had a rather dubious safety record – with more than 230 boiler explosions between 1816 and 1848 and almost 4,000 fatalities on the Mississippi River alone from 1810 to 1840.
However, like Titanic, Sultana was seen as a safe and modern ship, fitted with equipment such as fire-fighting pumps and boiler gauges that locked open if the pressure reached dangerous levels.
But in the week before the disaster, one of the boilers cracked soon after Sultana left New Orleans. The ship docked in Vicksburg, and a local boilermaker was called in to do the repairs.
The subsequent investigation heard that the boilermaker had told the captain and chief engineer the boiler should be replaced. But after he was assured the work would be carried out when Sultana reached St Louis, he agreed to carry out a temporary repair instead.
Mississippi steamboats had a poor record with boiler explosions, but Sultana was considered a safe and modern ship – until the 1865 disaster