Chief Engineer, Steamboat Sultana
Nathan Wintringer was the chief engineer on board the Sultana when she carried her precious cargo home towards the North. He was on duty when a leaky boiler was patched at Vicksburg and although the boiler mechanic wanted to cut out the ruptured part of the boiler for a permanent repair, Engineer Wintringer talked the mechanic into hammering down the bulge and placing a temporary patch over the leak. Fortunately, it was not the patch that caused the explosion of the boilers on April 27, 1865.
On May 16, 1865, Chief Engineer Wintringer was interviewed by Gen. Cadwallader C. Washburn, who was investigating the Sultana Disaster. Here is his statement:
When the Sultana left New Orleans I was her Chief Engineer. The boilers were in perfect condition and continued so until we were about ten hours run below Vicksburg, when I discovered a small leak in the larboard boiler at the third sheet from the forward end, a few inches below the horizontal diameter of the boiler where it was exposed to fire. The outer sheet at the lap had cracked a little at the longitudinal seam between two or three of the rivets, and this was the cause of the leak.
From this time we worked along slowly until we reached Vicksburg, where the services of a regular boiler-maker were obtained, who thoroughly repaired the boiler by riveting in a patch some eight inches broad by twenty-four long. The old iron which was a little bulged was cut out below the seam and the patch was secured by a line of rivets at its upper and lower edges and at its ends. I think the patch was about five-sixteenths of an inch in thickness; I saw the work after it was done and was satisfied that it was a good job; and I believe the boilers were just as safe then as before the leak occurred. From the time of leaving Vicksburg until we reached Memphis we carried about 135 lbs. of steam, and during this time there was not the slightest sign of giving way at the patch or of leaking.
The boat laid at Memphis about four or five hours and put off about two hundred and twenty-five hogshead of sugar which were taken from the hold, and I think we put off some hogs there too. I noticed the boilers particularly at Memphis and they seemed to be in good condition. We kept up from ninety to one hundred pounds of steam while there. I was on watch when we left there, and continued in charge of the engines until we stopped at the coal-boats, about half a mile above the city landing, where I was relieved by Mr. Samuel Clemens, the 2nd Engineer. At that time the boilers were, as far as I could judge, all right.
I was asleep in my berth when the explosion took place. My room, which was about mid-ships on the larboard side of the texas, was not at all injured, and I do not know how much, if any, of the texas in front of my room was injured, but most of it behind my room appeared to have sunk down on the cabin or lower deck. I remained on the boat only about twenty minutes, in which time she was pretty much enveloped in flames. To save myself from the fire I jumped overboard with a window-blind in my hand, on which I floated until I reached a piece of stage plank. With this I picked up four soldiers and all of us but one man who became too exhausted to hold on, were saved.
Mr. Clemens was a first-class engineer, some years older than myself, and we served on the boat as equals. He was perfectly temperate, and always attentive to his duties. I talked with him about the patch and he agreed with me that the boilers were as safe with it as before the fracture took place. With my present information I can only assign as the probable cause of the disaster that the boat was top heavy and was consequently inclined to careen over from side to side and in this way the water has been thrown from the upper boilers to the lower ones, exposing some parts of the upper ones to be heated, which parts gave way, where the water was suddenly brought back to its proper level. The water in the boilers sometimes “foams” as it is called, giving the appearance of plenty of water when there is little or none, but I never knew it to occur in the boilers of the Sultana.
The boat was frequently careened to one side or the other, even before the sugar was taken out, but never so much so as to cause the water in any of the boilers to be so much lowered as to expose any part of it to the fire unprotected by water.
I spoke to Mr. Clemens [the second engineer] in Memphis after the disaster as to the cause of the explosion. He said he could assign no cause for it; everything, he said, was right; there was plenty of water in the boilers, and there was not an extra pressure of steam. I had this conversation with him a short time before he died. I don’t know what the habits of Captain [J. Cass] Mason were as to temperance. My impression is that he was not strictly temperate. I never saw him under the influence of liquor. He was considered a very good captain; was careful and was very popular. The man who repaired the boilers at Vicksburg, I have forgotten his name, said that the repairing was a perfect job, and that the boilers were perfectly safe. He gave me no caution about carrying steam, and nothing was said that I heard about putting in more sheets on arriving in St. Louis.
I heard but one explosion before I left the boat, but there was a good deal of the boat remaining when I jumped into the water. I can remember nothing more bearing on the matter, and I do not think the cause of the explosion can be conjectured until the boilers can be inspected.
Taken from: Wintringer testimony, Washburn Inquiry, May 16, 1865.