REX NELSON: Expanding a museum

John Fogleman, who served 26 years as a circuit judge in eastern Arkansas, accompanies me to an old gymnasium near downtown Marion and lays out his vision for the future.

Fogleman is part of a group trying to raise $ 10 million. Part of this money will be used to transform a gymnasium built by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s into a state-of-the-art museum that will attract history buffs from across the country. The rest will be used as an endowment to finance future operations.

“We have already raised $ 3.4 million,” Fogleman said. “And it was done during a pandemic. “

The gymnasium was once a showcase in the Arkansas Delta. In 1939, the LSU basketball team came from Baton Rouge to play in southwest Memphis (now Rhodes). Fogleman recalls that high school shopping classes were taught in the building.

“We built furniture here,” he says. “We are giving new life to a historic structure.”

I’ve written about Marion’s little Sultana Disaster museum before. It tells the story of the deadliest maritime disaster in United States history. The disaster occurred on April 27, 1865, when the steamboat Sultana blew up.

At the end of the Civil War, the southern prison camps began releasing prisoners from the Union. Thousands of released prisoners were sent to Camp Fish near Vicksburg, Mississippi, and later loaded onto northbound boats.

The Sultana was authorized to carry 376 passengers. A combination of greed and corruption resulted in nearly 2,000 troops being crammed onto the boat. They were treated like cattle but seemed happy to finally return home. The festive mood changed at 2 a.m. on April 27 when huge boilers exploded. The boat was heading for Cairo, Illinois.

The wooden boat, which once carried freight and passengers between New Orleans and St. Louis, had carried 1,000 bushels of coal by 1 a.m. in Hopefield, just across the river from Memphis. An hour after leaving Hopefield, three of the four boilers exploded. Hundreds of men were killed instantly. Many more drowned later.

Survivor William Warner wrote: “I found myself wading through the water as the screams and cries of the injured and those who could not swim could be heard from all sides.”

Another survivor, James Kimberline, said: “The water around the boat for a distance of 20 to 40 feet was a solid, bubbling mass of humanity clinging to one another.”

Because there was so much news in April 1865, little has been written about the disaster. Confederate General Robert E. Lee visited Virginia on April 9. Less than a week later, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington. On April 26, Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, was captured. These events made the headlines.

The New York Times devoted only three lines to a disaster that left at least 1,200 people dead.

In April, Governor Asa Hutchinson announced that the state would contribute $ 750,000 to the effort. On a day when more than 100 business and civic leaders showed up, the governor said, “How can you understand the history of the Mississippi River without coming here to learn more about the Sultana? attracted the attention it should have received. “

Once the museum opens, it will mark the culmination of a decades-long effort to honor those who have died. In 1885, the survivors of Sultana began to reunite with the hope that the disaster would not be forgotten. The last meeting dates back to 1933.

In 1987, a Knoxville, Tenn. Lawyer named Norman Shaw wanted to determine if there was still interest in the disaster. Dozens of people visited Mount Olive Cemetery in Knoxville and the Association of Sultana Descendants and Friends was founded.

In 2011, the first public exhibition of Sultana artifacts was held on the Arkansas State University campus in Jonesboro. In 2013, the History Channel presented the first professionally produced documentary Sultana.

The Sultana Historical Preservation Society Inc. was established in 2013, and the current museum opened two years later near the Crittenden County Courthouse in Marion. In 2016, Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Museum” aired a Sultana segment. The following year, a 90-minute documentary titled “Remember the Sultana” was released.

In 2019, the Arkansas legislature established April 27 of each year as the Sultana’s Remembrance Day. That year, an exhibit of Sultana artifacts was also held at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.

Fogleman and others working on the project hope that an expanded facility (the current museum will have 1,000 square feet; the new museum will have 23,000) will be an integral part of a future tourist corridor that will see people staying in the area. high-rise hotel currently under construction at Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, then head north to visit the Sultana Museum, the Delta model town of Wilson, Johnny Cash’s childhood home in Dyess, and the Museum of the Cold War which is being developed on the grounds of the former Eaker Air Force Base near Blytheville.

Marion’s Publicity and Promotion Commission pledged $ 500,000 for the project, while members of the Sultana Historical Preservation Society pledged an additional $ 150,000. Company-funded studies estimate that the museum will attract 50,000 visitors each year.

“It could lead to additional shops and restaurants downtown,” Fogleman said. “I can see people spending an hour in the museum, an hour shopping, and another hour eating in a restaurant. in the sites of civil war. We’ll never know if we don’t ask. “

Editor-in-chief Rex Nelson’s column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He is also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

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