The Arabia Steamboat Museum
March 26, 2012
The stories of the Missouri River are as long and wild as the historic river itself. In the 1800s steamboat pilots navigated their paddle-wheelers up and down the bustling river carrying tons of cargo, making the river the expressway to the West. One of these side-wheel steamboats was named the Arabia and she made her first trip on the Missouri in 1855, carrying 109 soldiers from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Pierre in South Dakota. The 171-foot-long, twin stacked ship was the pride and joy of Capt. William Terrill and had a reputation for its speed, safety and comfort to her passengers.
On a hot afternoon of August 30, 1856, the Arabia, loaded with over 200 tons of valuable frontier-bound cargo, made good time pushing upstream at over 5 miles an hour. She had reached Kansas City in less than a week, but on Sept. 6th, the Kansas City Enterprise newspaper reported,
“The steamer Arabia, bound for Council Bluffs, struck a snag about a mile below Parkville and sunk to the boiler deck – Boat and cargo a total loss.”
Stories relate that the ill-fated river boat collided nearly head on with a submerged walnut tree snag mid-stream, piercing the heart of the ship and creating a huge hole. The Missouri waters rushed in, barely giving time for the passengers to use the single life-boat to reach shore before the Arabia sank into the soft river bottom. Only the smokestacks and top pilot house were soon visible but even those disappeared from sight in a few days. All aboard were saved except for one lone mule, which had been tied to a piece of sawmill equipment on the stern.
The Arabia was to lay hidden, another legend of the Missouri river, for 132 years. Then in 1988, an old worn river map and a metal detector helped lead David Hawley to the wreck. The ship and its treasures were buried 45-feet underground, in a Kansas farm field, now one-half mile away from the rivers edge. After a series of test drilling, David and his crew outlined the perimeter of the hull across the field in chalk. Bulldozers, backhoes, well drilling equipment and even a 10 ton crane were brought in to the site to unearth the legendary steamboat … a remarkable find!
Being an avid historian, I was delighted to have the opportunity to see just what was discovered in that Kansas farm field, on a recent trip to Missouri. At the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City (400 Grand Blvd – located in the City Market) you can see a “time capsule of 1856 frontier life.” Here, the world’s largest collection of a steamboats’ cargo, fills case after case in this richly exhibited treasure museum. I was completely overwhelmed by the thousands of items discovered and now so painstakingly preserved. It was as if I had stepped back in time, peering into display rooms overflowing with store goods. Dishware, farm tools, clothing, guns, knives, medical supplies and parts for wagons that could completely fill several blacksmith liveries are displayed. Bolts of fabric and sewing supplies that every frontier wife would need, are here, including brightly printed buttons, each a vibrant color and decorated in delicate patterns to match the calico. Hundreds of pounds of seed-beads and sparkling gold jewelry made me stop and wonder how each would have been traded for out West.
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But this is more then just a gallery museum. There is a fascinating short video shown that explains just how they dug up the Arabia. The huge hull is on display, rising far overhead and photos of the dig line the walls. A full-sized main deck of the steamboat has been reproduced, housing the huge boilers and steam engine from the original Arabia. It was eerie to walk the long wooden deck from bow to stern, where a 28-foot paddle-wheel turns in a pond, its rising wooden wheel dripping water as if the ship were out on the Missouri river again. The very snag that sank her lays quietly on display and too, the skeleton of the only life lost in the disaster – the forgotten mule – still wearing its halter, tied to the sawmill fragment.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a living, work-in-progress place. With 200 tons of precious items found buried under the river mud with the ship, a preservation lab has been established as part of the exhibit complex. Everyday, pieces are painstaking worked on to stabilize them so they will not deteriorate from exposure to the air. Items not yet preserved are frozen in ice to keep them safe until they can be worked on for future exhibits. A website (www.1856.com) provides daily updates on the lab progress. The Hawleys are now in search of the steamboat Mars, which sank July,1865 on route to Kansas City … a 329-ton side-wheeler.
Open daily, I highly recommend this museum. It’s an adventure your whole family will enjoy and find fascinating. The Arabia is a true American treasure … the King Tut’s Tomb of the Missouri River.