While attending a Women Writing the West conference, our group visited the amazing Arabia Steamboat Museum, a historic Kansas City, MO attraction.
In 1856, the 171-foot-long, side-wheeler steamboat Arabia sank to the bottom of the Missouri River when her hull was pierced by a submerged tree, taking with it 200 tons of brand new store merchandise. The snag ripped open the hull which quickly filled with water. By the next morning, only the smokestacks and pilot house remained visible. Within the next few days, all remaining traces of the boat disappeared from sight. Numerous attempts to salvage the boat and her contents were attempted but, it appeared, all was lost. Although there were no human casualties, a mule that was tied to sawmill equipment went down with the ship.
Over time, the Missouri River changed course, leaving the Arabia buried deep in the mud of a farmer’s field. In 1987, Bob Hawley and his sons Greg and David set out to find the boat. Using old maps and a proton magnetometer to determine the location, they finally discovered the Arabia half a mile from the current river, under 45 feet of silt and topsoil.
The owners of the farm gave permission for excavation with the provision that the project be completed before spring planting. In November 1988, the Hawleys, along with family friends Jerry Mackery and David Luttrell, began the recovery task while the water table was at its lowest point. Heavy equipment was brought in including a 100-ton crane and 20 irrigation pumps to keep the site from flooding, Within days, goods were recovered, all in remarkably good shape. A wooden crate filled with elegant china was so well preserved even its yellow straw packing material was still intact. Pickles sealed in a wooden barrel were still edible. (Can’t you just hear that conversation: “You try it.” “No, you try it.”)
In February 1989, work ceased at the site and the pumps were turned off. The hole filled with water overnight.
Although the site of the sinking is near present-day Kansas City, Kansas, the cargo and remnants of the ship are now housed in The Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The museum houses one of the most remarkable collections of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. Each piece has been carefully cleaned, categorized and attractively displayed. The collection is still a work in progress as preservationists continue to clean remaining artifacts.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a fascinating collection of goods including European dishware, jewelry, guns, tools, clothing and food products,. The attractive displays are works of art with items exhibited on furniture replicas, effectively creating a time-capsule of frontier life in the 1800’s.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a perfect destination if you’re in the Kansas City, MO area. For more information, visit http://1856.com/