Remembering The Sultana

"Sultana" at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865. Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)
“Sultana” at Helena, Arkansas, just prior to its explosion on April 27, 1865.
Photo: Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress, digital id#cph.3a48909)

On 27 April 1865 the steamboat Sultana carrying recently released Union army prisoners of war exploded on the Mississippi River resulting in 1800 deaths. It is regarded as one of the worst maritime disasters in U.S. history.

The steamboat was already in dire need of repairs before it departed on 24 April from Vicksberg, Mississippi. Sultana’s captain and part owner, J. Cass Mason, was told a proper repair would take days. However the War Department was paying $5 for every enlisted man and $10 for each officer. Not wanting to miss a big payday, Mason ordered temporary patches and filled the steamboat with as many officers and enlisted that he could. Thanks to a corrupt Union Army quartermaster, 2,400 enlisted and officers were steered to a ship that was rated to carry only 376.  Its decks began to sag and needed reinforcement before it departed for Cairo, Illinois its final destination.

After unloading cargo in Memphis, Tennessee the Sultana appeared top heavy. The boilers were forced to work hard against the current and swollen Mississippi River. Sometime around 0200 on 27 April three boilers exploded instantly killing many. The explosion caused massive holes and flaming debris that included hot coal that came raining down back on the ship. The Sultana erupted into flames. Frantic Union Army soldiers jumped overboard but many were weakened by being prisoners of war. Some clung to debris, and so many clamored to get on a lifeboat after it was lowered that it sank. Bodies would be found far down river and in trees.

Sadly other historical events, such as the surrender of Confederate General Joseph Johnston and the capture of John Wilkes Booth pushed this news story aside. It never got the attention it should have.

While overcrowding and corruption are considered the reasons for the disaster, some claim sabotage by Confederate agents using a coal torpedo. Some evidence, such as testimony of eyewitnesses, suggests its possibility. However more recent examinations such as done on History Detectives shows it more likely a disaster caused by overloading a ship that was already in dire need of repair.

Sources
1. Christopher Klein, The Forgotten History of America’s Titanic 150 Years Ago,History.com,27 April 2015.
2. Sultana (Wikipedia)
3. Stephen Ambrose, Remembering Sultana, National Geographic, NationalGeographic.com, 1 May 2001.
4. Sultana Disaster, Tennessee State Library and Archives: Disasters in Tennessee, www.tn.gov


Whatever Happened To….Lord of Titanic?

Public Domain
Public Domain

Prior to sinking of Titanic, Stanley Lord was a well regarded ship master. He had started out at age 13 and by 29 given command by the Leyland Line. Considering that most ship masters had to wait till near fifty years of age for a command, it tells you he was considered extraordinary. Some even say that by 1912 he was more experienced that most of Titanic’s officers (Captain Smith excluded of course). But at the end of both American and British inquiries, the conclusion was that he could have done more. Discrepancies in the respective ship positions could not be reconciled resulting in doubts about Lord and his officers. While neither inquiry recommended any legal action be taken against him, the damage to his reputation had been done. He asked for a hearing to bring witnesses and submit evidence before the Board of Trade. He was denied.

Though the Leyland Line had supported him (and provided evidence that his reported position was backed up with wireless messages)he was asked to resign. Fortunately the owner of the Nitrate Producers Steamship Co, John Natta, was sympathetic and offered him command of a ship. He would work for them from 1913-1927 when failing eyesight forced his retirement. From then on he disappeared from public view until the 1950’s. First the publication of A Night To Remember in 1955 rekindled interest in Titanic and depicted Lord in a very unsympathetic life. The 1958 movie of the same name did the same. He sought assistance from Mercantile Marine Service Association(MMSA) and its general secretary, Leslie Harrison took up his case.

Lord though passed away in 1962 at age 84 not knowing if Harrison’s efforts would result in anything. Harrison’s two petitions for a new hearing were twice rejected by the Board of Trade. Harrison’s book A Titanic Myth lays forth the case for Lord’s defense he was never able to give.

Postscript

Titanic was found in 1985 and its position showed that Titanic fourth officer Boxhall had miscalculated the ships SOS position by 13 nautical miles. This was significant since both inquiries discounted any discrepancy of Titanic’s position and held that Californian’s position was in error. Eventually the U.K. Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) was asked to reappraise the role of SS Californian in sinking of Titanic. The report was issued in 1992. While those undertaking the report differed on whether Titanic was seen by Californian, they were unanimous that Lord’s failure to take action when rockets were sighted was wrong. While rockets had other uses than distress, it ought to have been investigated with the ship’s wireless operator awakened to find out what was going on. Why this was not done remains unknown.

There is a natural tendency to reject the signals of disaster and to hope that all is well despite the evidence of one’s own eyes and senses, Of course, Mr Stone should have gone down himself to the Master when there was no proper response from him, but the impression one gets of Captain Lord is that, far from being slack as has sometimes been suggested, he was in fact something of a martinet, and the young officer may have feared to leave the Bridge (normally a grave dereliction of duty) even though under the circumstances it would have been safe and right to do so. One can readily imagine Mr Stone on the Bridge, knowing in his heart what ought to be done (he is recorded as saying to Mr Gibson that “a ship doesn’t fire rockets for nothing”) but trying to persuade himself
that there was no real cause for alarm – and desperately wishing it was four o’clock and the Mate was there. I sympathise with Mr Stone, but it must be said that he was seriously at fault. (FN#1)

Note the use of the word “martinet” to describe Captain Lord. That word is not used much these days but instructive on what people of his day thought of him (and today when they read what others said about him). To call someone a martinet is to describe someone who demands strict adherence to rules and doles out punishment for those who fail to follow them. And Lord was strict on following the rules and you did not break them for any reason lightly.

However the report also notes that had Lord done all the right things, the outcome would likely have been the same. The error in navigation would have been found but the time lost doing this would result in Californian not arriving until Titanic sank. The report concludes:

I do not think any reasonably probable action by Captain Lord could have led to a different outcome of the tragedy. This of course does not alter the fact that the attempt should have been made.(FN#2)

It is a partial vindication for Lord. It absolves him of providing a false position of California nat both hearings. It does not absolve him or his officers of doing nothing. While the outcome might have been the same, at least attempting to investigate the rockets (by waking the wireless operator and finding out who was sending them up and why)was preferable to either being indifferent or unconcerned that people may be at peril on the high seas.

FN#1:MAIB Report: Reappraisal of Evidence
Relating to SS CALIFORNIAN,page 17.
FN#2: IBID, page 18

Sources:
Stanley Lord Encyclopedia Titanica
Stanley Lord (Wikipedia)
Reappraisal  of Evidence Relating to  SS “CALIFORNIAN”(Marine Accident Investigation Branch , UK, 1992)


Retro Saturday: Land of the Giants

Irwin Allen’s Land of the Giants (ABC, 1968-1970)

TV Screenshot of opening title  (Wikipedia)
TV Screenshot of opening title
(Wikipedia)

 Land of the Giants was a show with a simple theme of adapting Gulliver’s Travels to a science-fiction theme. Suppose you landed on a planet where everyone was similar but stood 72 feet taller than you? How would you survive and get back home, if ever? Irwin Allen thought it might be a good theme for a show and crafted this show on that premise. Taking place in 1983, a sub-orbital transport named Spindrift encounters a space storm and is transported to a mysterious planet of the giants. The passengers and crew are stuck on this strange world until they can find a way home.

The world the landed on was never named but similar to Earth. Technology was both familiar and different. They did not have space travel but had advanced technology like cloning, force fields, androids and small nuclear reactors. The people were human and the world similar in many respects (similar geography, animals etc) but its location was either in a parallel universe or another dimension since access was limited by a wormhole. Other sub-orbital spacecraft have crashed on this world and the series is bleak on this regard: none of them survived. So the survivors of Spindrift, which lacks the power to leave, are going to have to survive on this planet for a while. Aside from the giant scale of everything, the inhabitants are not helpful. Some are outright hostile or cruel, others are happy to use them for some purpose and betray them. An authoritarian government wants the little people rounded up since they are a threat.

Abernathy Round Tower in Scotland is 72 feet(21.94 meters) tall. This is how tall a person from Land of the Giants would be on our planet. Photo:Lis Burke(Wikimedia Commons)
Abernathy Round Tower in Scotland is 72 foot(21.94 meters) tall. This is how tall a person from Land of the Giants would be on our planet.
Photo:Lis Burke(Wikimedia Commons)

Like all shows by Irwin Allen, one has to suspend disbelief and just go with the flow. After all 72 foot tall humans would be a problem owing to the Square Cube Law conceived by Galileo Galilei in 1638. It states that as a shape grows in size, its volume grows faster than its surface area. The result is that you would be crushed if you suddenly grew too tall and lacked the structural support for it. Animals in nature that are big develop enhanced skeletal frames and scaling so that they do not get crushed. This is why no Godzilla or King Kong can exist (unless they had evolved that way over time) by some weird radiation or genetic mutation. Only creatures that are in the sea can get enormous since the effects of this law do not apply (which is why you have huge whales, squids, and octopi) thanks to water. Humans that are exceptionally tall (caused by a tumor on the pituitary gland of the brain) suffer serious health issues in the circulatory or skeletal system.

If Irwin Allen wanted to be creative, he would have made them large but not in this way. Perhaps he would have made them more like 8 feet tall and would fit into legends of giants in mythology. Now that would have been interesting, Suppose a race of giants (exceptionally tall humans but not 72 feet  tall) had been on Earth long ago. They came into conflict with normal size humans. For whatever reason, many are wiped out (you could tie it into Biblical stories) but a few remained like Goliath that fought David. Others that did survive ended up on this other world, in a parallel dimension. Part of the story would be finding out who they were, who brought them there, and perhaps their evil intentions of wanting to return to Earth. That would be more plausible and interesting than in making them so gigantic that even with a slingshot, David would have no chance against these giants.

Free roamers like to argue that in this other dimension the laws of physics are alerted or somehow the giants altered themselves genetically be so tall. Hogwash! At any rate each week the survivors were put in peril and eventually rescued themselves or sometimes a giant might aid them. There was no resolution by the time the series ended. They were still trapped and the future on this world of giants looked bleak. At least Gulliver was able to leave Lilliput. It seems the unlucky survivors of Spindrift are marooned unless Allen had thought of a way to get them home again.


Titanic Tidbits

1)The 103 anniversary of Titanic sinking was commemorated in Belfast with a traditional wreath laying ceremony and a moment of silence. According to the Belfast Telegraph, there were many international visitors present. The International Ice Patrol held its yearly memorial service as well and dropped a wreath from a plane over the spot where Titanic sank.
Sources:
1. Titanic Memorial Service At Belfast City Hall Marks 103rd Anniversary Of Sinking(15 April 2015,Belfast Telegraph)
2. Coast Guard International Ice Patrol Commemorates Sinking Of Titanic(15 April 2015, Military.com)

Photo:public domain
Photo:public domain

2)30 James Street (Albion House) which once housed the White Star Line offices in Liverpool, had special tribute dinner that included many connected to Titanic. The descendents of Carpathia captain Arthur Rostron were amongst those present at the dinner. All 63 rooms of the Titanic themed hotel were opened and those who had proven connections were given a free overnight stay. The hotel has received favorable reviews on several online review sites.
Source: Titanic Sinking Anniversary Marked At Tribute Evening(15 April 2015,Liverpool Echo)

Public Domain
Public Domain

3) Father Thomas Byles perished on Titanic remaining aboard to pray with fellow passengers. There is a call to have him proclaimed a martyr of the church, the first step towards possible sainthood. Father Graham Smith calls him “an extraordinary man who gave his life for others.”
Source:Titanic Priest Father Thomas Byles ‘Should Be Sainted’(12 April 2015,BBC)

Public Domain
Public Domain

4)After being fully restored by the Nomadic Charitable Trust,the last remaining ship of the White Star Line has been transferred to Titanic Belfast. The Nomadic was used to ferry passengers in Cherbourg, France to Titanic.  After its use with White Star ended, the former ferry ended up as a restaurant and then left to rot before being brought to Belfast to be restored. Though open for the past two years, it now is formally part of Titanic Belfast.
Source:Titanic Belfast Takes Over SS Nomadic(9 April 2015,BBC)

5)The Peoria Riverfront Museum has secured Titanic:The Artifact Exhbition as an exhibit in 2016. It will run from 12 Nov 2016 until March 2017.
Source: Peoria Riverfront Museum Secures Titanic Exhibit For 2016 (13 April 2015, Journal Star)

6)Barrie Clarke solved a mystery of where some Titanic headstones came from. When Halifax decide to replace a stone marker, they could not identify where it came from. Enter Clarke, a professor at Dalhousie University, who decided to play a sleuth. His journey to find the quarry was not easy since many closed long ago. Eventually he found it and testing proved the granite matched the headstones in Halifax .
Source: Titanic Gravestone Mystery Led To Five Year Search(22 April 2015,CBC)

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Rare Titanic Deck Chair Fetches $149,000 At Auction

Nantucket Titanic Deck Chair Photo: Henry Aldridge & Son
Nantucket Titanic Deck Chair
Photo: Henry Aldridge & Son

A rare Titanic deck chair was recently auctioned by Henry Aldridge & Son for the princely sum of £100,000, The chair was one of six or seven that were found in the Atlantic by ships sent out to retrieve bodies from Titanic. This particular one originally belonged to Captain Julien Lemarteleur. Due to its fragility, the anonymous seller kept it as a display piece in a large window with a sea view.

The name of the buyer was not released but was from the U.K.

Source:Titanic chair sells for £100k (18 April 2015, Daily Mail)


Titanic Chronology:Carpathia Arrives on 18 April 1912

U.S. Library of Congress,Bain Collection, Control #ggb2004010347 Public Domain
U.S. Library of Congress,Bain Collection, Control #ggb2004010347
Public Domain

It had been a long three days since Titanic sank when Carpathia arrived bearing Titanic’s survivors. What had been first optimistic news turned grim after the miscommunication had been sorted out. Titanic had sunk and 1500 had perished out in the cold North Atlantic. News as to who exactly had survived was not fully known as Carpathia had kept a media blackout during its journey to New York. There was a reporter on board but had to keep his notes secret in a cigar box lined with champagne corks. He would toss it towards a Hearst editor in a tugboat in New York harbor where it would be raced for a special evening edition of New York World. 50 tugboats full of reporters yelled at the ship through megaphones offering money for eyewitness accounts. Carpathia first stopped at Pier 59, the White Star Line pier and offloaded Titanic’s lifeboats. They were all that were left of the ship aside from the flotsam and jetsam that would be found later in the Atlantic. Then Carpathia proceeded to Pier 54 and the Titanic survivors disembarked. It was only then it was truly known who did survive and who did not.

Pier 54, 2012 where Carpathia docked to unload Titanic survivors, Photo:  Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)
Pier 54, 2012 where Carpathia docked to unload Titanic survivors,
Photo: Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)

Pier 54 is now part of Chelsea Piers and is located at Little West 12th Street and the Hudson River (in the Meatpacking District and Greenwich Village area). It is now part of the Hudson River Park. It is now used mostly for concerts, exhibits, and free movies. Several television shows have used the Chelsea piers as a backdrop for  television shows (Law & Order, Spin City, The Apprentice). There is a desire to convert it into a nautical museum though that has yet to come to fruition. There is also a plan to redevelop Pier 54’s original style pier for mixed use space.


April 18, 1906: The Earth Shook and Fire Sprang Forth

Northeast View of Post & Grant Avenues, San Francisco, 18 April 1906 Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier: 524396)
Northeast View of Post & Grant Avenues, San Francisco, 18 April 1906
Public Domain (National Archives and Records Administration, ARC Identifier: 524396)

At 5:12 a.m. Northern California was awakened by an earthquake that is now considered one of the most significant of all time. The epicenter was near San Francisco and the shaking lasted between 45-60 seconds. It was so powerful that it was felt from southern Oregon to Los Angeles and as far east as central Nevada. The intensity showed the clear difference between bedrock and sediment (or land filled) geology. Those that got the strongest shaking were in sediment filled areas rather than bedrock. Which explains why in San Francisco the damage was the most severe in those areas. Specifically it is the area called SOMA (South of Market  or the old term south of the slot)where the greatest damage resulted. That area used to be part of San Francisco Bay but was filled in for more housing, commercial, and industrial uses. Houses and buildings were damaged or collapsed.

Although San Francisco got a significant amount of damage, other areas were likewise damaged. Cities like Santa Rosa got hit hard(the entire downtown was destroyed) and many in the countryside suffered building or infrastructure damage as well. The magnitude of the quake was originally thought to be around 8.3 on the Richter scale. However others argue it was between 7.7 and 7.9 based on new interpretations of earthquake data. However you measure it, the earthquake was one of the most severe in the modern era. The earthquake not only destroyed buildings, injured scores and killing 3,000 (estimated) but caused the fires that made it much worse with water supply being severely limited by broken pipes. City leaders would claim later, to ensure people would come back to the city, that San Francisco was not destroyed by the earthquake but the fires. The truth was (and later researchers would learn this)how extensive the earthquake had been to San Francisco. The fires were a direct result of the earthquake and made a bad situation that much worse. The Army used dynamite to blow up areas to block fires. This usually is a good tactic to blow up ground to create firebreaks. This made it much worse since no one thought about the possibility of flying embers from blown up buildings causing more fires. Which is what happened and made it that much worse.

Today we look back at the old pictures but not really appreciate the total magnitude of the disaster. San Francisco rebuilt but continued its old ways for a long time. Buildings went up in the very areas worst hit by the earthquake with little attention to earthquake safety. But by the late 20th century that had changed as city leaders realized how damaging another 1906 type of quake would be to a modern city. New ordinances were passed and many of the taller buildings in San Francisco today in the Financial District were constructed to handle earthquakes. I learned this from being in one such building during the Loma Prieta Earthquake (17 Oct 1989 at 5:07pm). That earthquake was centered near Santa Cruz and measured 6.9, much less powerful than 1906. But it caused a lot of damage and some loss of life as well. The building I was in (since it is on landfill) was built to sway with the earthquake rather than remain locked in place. It was a weird experience to feel the building rock as it did but it survived just fine while a building across the street and built long before that standard had its top cave in. That building had to be torn down.

Some things did stay the same as 1906. There was little official guidance, mass transit was down, lots of cars stuck in traffic, and plenty of people milling about trying to figure out how to get home. I was lucky as I took a SamTrans bus to Daly City from the old Transbay Terminal. It was long bus ride that took close to 3 hours but I was grateful that bus was running. Those living in the East Bay would have to wait a good long while for BART to run again. And those that watched the World Series that night saw an earthquake live at old Candlestick Park.

Additional Information

The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake (USGS)
San Francisco Earthquake, 1906(National Archives)
New S.F. archive includes stunning photos from 1906 quake(S.F. Chronicle,17 April 2015)
San Francisco earthquake and fire, April 18, 1906 (Library of Congress) 1906 film that shows the damage.
The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire (Bancroft Library Online Exhibit)


Titanic Chronology: 17 April 1912:The Grim Task of Collecting Bodies

CS Mackay Bennett (circa 1884) Artist Unknown Public Domain
CS Mackay Bennett (circa 1884)
Artist Unknown
Public Domain

With confirmation that Titanic sank with great loss of life, the next task was to collect bodies floating in the Atlantic. The cable ship Mackay Bennett was the first ship hired by White Star (others would be employed as well)to retrieve bodies. The ship emptied itself of its normal stores in Halifax, Nova Scotia and brought aboard supplies for its new mission:

  • Embalming supplies and coffins (100)
  • Chief embalmer of John Snow & Co.,John R. Snow Jr.
  • 100 tons of ice to store the bodies
  • Canon Kenneth Hind of All Saints Cathedral, Halifax

Mackay Bennett left Halifax at 12:28 pm on 17 April 1912. Due to heavy fog and rough sears it would take four days to reach where Titanic sank. They began recovery at 0600 on 20 April. Bodies were manually recovered by skiffs and brought back to the ship. They recovered 51 bodies but realized they did not have enough embalming supplies on hand. Since the laws at the time required bodies to be embalmed before unloading from ships docking in a Canadian port, they followed a general procedure:

  • First class passengers were embalmed and placed in coffins
  • Second class passengers were embalmed but wrapped in canvas
  • Third class passengers were buried at sea

Bodies that were brought back were either transported by relatives to their final resting place or interred in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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The Sad Parting

The Sad Parting From Story of the Wreck of the Titanic;Marshall Everett;1912 Artist Unknown Public Domain
The Sad Parting
Illustration from Story of the Wreck of the Titanic(1912,Marshall Everett)
Artist Unknown
Public Domain

The Daily Mail went through its archives in 2012 and reprinted the coverage of Titanic’s sinking. The report on Tuesday 16 April 1912 related the ship had struck an iceberg, had sunk, but no lives lost. The following day on 17 April the full horrible truth had been learned. The ship had sunk but 1500 people had died which included some very prominent people. Questions are raised about not enough lifeboats for all and out dated rules. The shift in mood is dramatic to read and I encourage you to take a look. You can read the article here.