Wednesday, July 1, 2009
My son and I recently took a trip down the Mississippi River on a riverboat aptly named the “Memphis Queen.” Although the vessel is only five years old, it resembles boats of days gone by. Our tour guide, an African-American gentleman with a strong Memphian accent enlightened us on local history, and the use of steamboats on the Mighty Mississippi, the “Father of Waters.”
Riverboats were widely used as a major mode of transportation during the eighteen and nineteenth centuries. They are glamorized today, even though they were extremely dangerous. Most ran on a boiler system that had a tendency to explode if the combination of steam, water, and air wasn’t properly balanced. In fact, the worst maritime disaster in American history took place in such a way.
The Sultana was docked off the Memphis shore on April 26, 1865, and loaded to six times her capacity with Union soldiers who had been released from prison, and were being transported back up north. No one knows what actually caused the explosion, but around 2 a.m. the boilers exploded, the boat caught fire, and nearly 1,800 people lost their lives. This terrible event has virtually gone unnoticed, primarily since it happened in the final days of the Civil War, and the country was preoccupied with Lee’s surrender, Lincoln’s assassination, John Wilkes Booth’s capture, and tired of hearing about death.
Another interesting tidbit we learned from our guide in relation to the War Between the States is that Mud Island, which is where the Wolf and Mississippi Rivers meet at Memphis, was formed by a Union ironclad that ran aground. The mud and silt built up around it, and once the ship was finally removed, the island remained. Mud Island is now a river park complete with a museum and amphitheatre that hosts top name musical acts.
If you’re ever in the neighborhood, I strongly recommend you take a riverboat ride on the Mississippi, and experience for yourself what it’s like to step back in time. There is nothing so serene as floating slowly down the river with the cool breeze wafting by, and imagining what our ancestors experienced.