The annual Sultana Reunion, which remembered the disaster which happened 150 years ago, was held this year in Marion Arkansas, April 23 – 27. It was an astounding success! We were warmly welcomed with banners and signs posted throughout the city, and all events were carefully planned and executed by City staff and the Marion Chamber of Commerce. Special thanks go to Sheryl, Tracy, Liz, Roz, Norman Vickers, Frank Fogelman and Frank Barton. Several local businesses sold Sultana-named items, like the Sultana Candle (I bought one, smells so good!), at the Merry Magnolia Gift Shop.
We first met on Thursday evening, April 23, at the host hotel, the new Marion Hampton Inn, in a filled-to-capacity conference room, where everyone introduced themselves. Most, of course, were descendants, but quite a few came just because they had a serious interest in the disaster. There were attendees there from as far away is New Mexico and Alaska!
On Friday morning, at the very well-appointed Marion Methodist Church, we heard lectures by Norman Vickers, Dr. Doug Cupples, and Jerry Potter regarding the disaster and how it affected people in the Marion/Memphis area. It is always special for me to once again talk with Mayor Frank Fogelman and his cousin Frank Barton.
These two men’s ancestors spent the night of the tragedy, April 27, 1865, going out into the river and bringing back passengers who were struggling to survive the cold and treacherous Mississippi. The body of my great great grandfather, Pvt. Adam Schneider, was never found, but I always wonder if perhaps one of these men’s relatives might have made an attempt, though futile, to save him.
That day we also visited the new Sultana Disaster Museum, where maps, artifacts, images, and narratives are beautifully displayed. The highlight of the museum is a large scale model,16 feet long, of the Sultana, begun by Tom Koba of Ohio years ago, and recently skillfully completed by our own Gene Salecker (author of “Disaster on the Mississippi: The Sultana Explosion, April 27, 1865” ). Also at the museum was a Gift Shop where Sultana-related items were sold. I bought a jacket with a sultana logo on it and also a little soft toy alligator, which is reminiscent of the real one kept by the Sultana crew in a box under the stairs.
That night our large group of about 180 people were treated to a wonderful Southern chicken dinner, with all the trimmings, at the Marion Methodist Church.
The next day, Saturday, we went on an excellent guided bus tour of significant places related to the Sultana in the Marion/Memphis area. In the afternoon we boarded an excursion boat, the Memphis Queen III, for a dinner river cruise. While on board Gene Salecker reputed various spurious conspiracy theories which try to prove that the Sultana was sabotaged instead of having been destroyed due to a faulty boiler.
As we reached the place on the Mississippi River where the Sultana’s boilers exploded (seven miles above Memphis), the descendants and anyone else who wanted to participate each tossed a rose in the water after calling out a Sultana passenger’s name. White roses were for those who died; red roses were for those who survived. It was a very meaningful ceremony.
On Sunday we visited Memphis National Cemetery, where 23 Sultana soldiers are interred. They survived the disaster but later died in Memphis hospitals. Jerry Potter, Memphis attorney and author of “The Sultana Tragedy: America’s Greatest Marine Disaster,” was our guide.
Monday was our last day, and it ended with the premiere showing of an hour and a half documentary, “Remember the Sultana,” produced by film actor Sean Astin and Mark and Mike Marshall. It was shown at the Paradiso Theater in Memphis and there was a full house, with 375 people in attendance. This is a beautifully produced film, and we are so grateful to all involved. DVDs for purchase will be available soon.
So ended this very special Sultana Reunion. Even though we were commemorating a tragedy, many new bonds were forged and friends were made. Next year – in Knoxville!
You can find many wonderful pictures taken by our members during the 2015 Sultana Reunion in Marion, AR. online. I wanted to mention a couple of links here. Janet Hunter’s Flickr site. Here you will currently find photos made by Ric Anderson, Linda Dreher, Linda Shaw, Gene Salecker, Brenda Smith and Janet herself. Another great collection of photos were taken by Brian K. Smith of Michigan. Brian has made all of his photos free to anyone! An additional option he offers is that for a small charge you can order a print directly from him. If you have photos and would like for them to be shared on Janet Hunter’s Flickr site, please send them directly to her via email with “Sultana Reunion Photos” in the subject line.