Stories of Appalachia The Civil War Last Survivor of the Sultana Explosion Dies – March 4, 1931

Last Survivor of the Sultana Explosion Dies – March 4, 1931

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On April 27, 1865, the side-wheel steamboat Sultana exploded and sank while moving from New Orleans up the Mississippi River toward Cairo, Illinois. The ship had stopped at Vicksburg where the captain of the boat, James Mason, was asked to transport Union prisoners of war gathered at that city from Confederate prisons at Andersonville and Cahaba north, at a price of $2.75 a man.

The boat was designed with a capacity of 376 passengers, but Captain Mason saw an opportunity and he grabbed it, taking onboard over 1900 former prisoners for a hefty fee.

There had been a boiler problem on the boat before it arrived in Vicksburg and repairs were attempted. However, the captain had been told that to fully repair the boiler would take several days, which would have cost Captain Mason his fees as the former prisoners would have been sent home on other boats. So he ordered a temporary repair and set off with his load of men, mainly from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.

The Sultana stopped at Memphis to unload a cargo of sugar then left as it continued upstream. At about 2 in the morning on April 27th, the boat’s boilers suddenly exploded releasing an enormous blast of steam, aimed at the passengers on the deck. The steamboat then began to sink into the Mississippi River.

Over 1,100 men died in the incident from burns, hypothermia or drowning.

On this day in 1931, the last survivor of the Sultana explosion, Pleasant M. Keeble, passed away at his home at 124 Keeble Street in Knoxville, Tennessee, of pneumonia, at the age of 85. He had managed to find his way to the bank of the river where a man on the riverbank fished him out of the water with a long pole.

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