>SS Sultana Explosion and Fire – April 27, 1865

>145 years ago today, the United States experienced its most significant marine casualty in terms of lives lost. On that day the steamship Sultana exploded and caught fire. An estimated 1,800 of the approximately 2,400 passengers and crew died after one of the ship’s boilers exploded. The ship had just left Vicksburg en route St. Louis. It was carrying numerous Union Army veterans home, many recently released from Confederate prisons. Subsequently, inspection standards for steamships were strengthened (Courtesy of Bryant’s Maritime Blog).

The history of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Program is forever linked with steamships and related marine casualties. After several steamboat fires and boiler explosions, Congress passed the Steamboat Act of 1838 to “provide better security of the lives of passengers on board of vessels propelled in whole or in part by steam.”

After steamboat disasters increased in volume and severity, Congress passed the Steamboat Act of 1852. This Act required the testing of boilers and steam safety valves, and licensing of pilots and engineers by local inspectors. The law exempted, however, freight boats, ferries, and tugboats. Under this law, the organization and form of the first federal maritime inspection service (i.e., the Steamboat Inspection Service) began to emerge.

An Act of 1871 created a comprehensive Marine Safety Code. This Act sought to protect the crew as well as passengers, authorized period inspections, and extended licensing requirements to all masters and chief mates. Further, it created a Supervisory Inspector General directly responsible to the Secretary of the Treasury and gave the Board of Supervisory Inspectors the authority to prescribe nautical Rules of the Road.