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The Biggest Forgotten Events in American History

The major historical moments … that we forgot about.

April 2024

Script

The worst maritime disaster in American history ... is an event you’ve probably never heard of.

In April 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and sank in the Mississippi River.i

The wooden vessel had been designed to hold a maximum of 376 people.

But the captain agreed to transport Union prisoners-of-war back to the North and crammed more than 2,000 of them onboard.

The ship’s boilers exploded outside of Memphis and nearly 1,200 passengers were killed.

The tragedy is poorly remembered partially because it got crowded out of the news cycle.

The reason? On the day before, Union soldiers had captured and killed Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Boothe.

That’s not the only time major news was bumped from the headlines by an even bigger story.

On the morning of April 16, 1947, Texas City, Texas, experienced the deadliest industrial accident in American history.

A fire broke out onboard a cargo ship called the SS Grandcamp, which was loaded with fertilizer and ammunition.ii

The ship’s ensuing explosion was so violent that it was picked up by seismographs as far away as Denver.

The surrounding neighborhood was flattened and the blast caused a 15-foot tidal wave.iii

The explosion killed 600 people — but still didn’t lead the news, because the day prior Jackie Robinson had broken baseball’s color barrier.iv

Another example: On February 3, 1959, the Cold War looked like it was about to become hot.

Soviet soldiers had blocked a U.S. Army convoy into West Berlin and detained five American troops.v

It was a moment of huge international tension that diplomats worried could lead to war.

The incident was overshadowed, however, by “The Day the Music Died” — the Iowa plane crash that killed pop stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper.

Perhaps the biggest story ever to get bumped off the front page was the closest thing we’ve ever had to evidence of alien life.

On August 15, 1977, an astronomer at Ohio State University detected something that fit the profile of a radio signal being beamed from across space.

To this day, it remains the most debated event in the history of the search for extraterrestrials.vi What story could be big enough to push possible alien contact out of the news?

The following day, Elvis Presley died unexpectedly.

 

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:

  1. The worst maritime disaster in American history was overshadowed by the death of John Wilkes Boothe. 
  2. The worst industrial accident in American history lost news coverage to Jackie Robinson’s baseball debut. 
  3. A strange signal from outer space that some posit may have been a sign of extraterrestrial life took a back seat to media coverage of Elvis’ death. 

Source(s)

  1. The Sultana Disaster  American Battlefield Trust
  2. First Explosion  Moore Memorial Public Library
  3. Ibid.
  4. "The First Time Jackie Robinson Broke Baseball’s Color Barrier" (Bob Nowatzki)  National Archives 
  5. "Soviet Still Detains U.S. Convoy; Action Believed Test on Berlin" (Arthur J. Olsen)  New York Times 
  6. "Sun-Like Star Ruled Out as Source of Mysterious Wow! Signal" (Tom Metcalfe)  Astronomy

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