My sister told us all about a steamboat museum in Kansas City. It sounded like a really interesting place to check out and we decided to go…
The Arabia was built in 1853, in Brownsville, Pennsylvania near the Monongahela River. Its paddle wheels were 28 feet (8.5 m) across, and its steam boilers consumed approximately thirty cords of wood per day. The boat averaged five miles (8 km) an hour going upstream. The boat traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers before it was bought by Captain John Shaw, who operated the boat on the Missouri River.
In spring of 1856, the boat was sold to Captain William Terrill and William Boyd, and it made fourteen trips up and down the Missouri during their ownership. In March, the boat collided with an obstacle, nearly sinking. Repairs were made in nearby Portland. A few weeks later the boat blew a cylinder head and had to be repaired again. The rest of the season was uneventful for the boat until September 5. On September 5, 1856, the Steamboat Arabia sank near Kansas City with 200 tons of cargo. The steamboat was loaded with everyday objects that made life possible for pioneers in the 1800s. It is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.
The Steamboat Arabia was one of many casualties of the perilous Missouri River. The Mighty Missouri, as it was often called, is the longest river in the United States and has claimed nearly 400 other steamboats over its 2,500 mile course.
In September 1856, the Arabia was carrying over 200 tons of cargo intended for general stores and homes in 16 mid-western frontier towns. The steamer was still fully loaded when it hit a black walnut tree snag and sank just 6 miles west of Kansas City. Due to erosion, the Missouri River changed course over time, and the Arabia was buried underground for over a century — along with all of its precious cargo. Lying 45-feet deep beneath a Kansas cornfield, the Arabia’s payload was protected from light and oxygen and was thus remarkably well preserved.
An Amateur archaeologist began the search for the lost steamer, using a metal detector and old maps. Located a half-mile from the present river’s course, 5 men and their families would begin the adventure of a lifetime… recovering the Steamboat Arabia. In 1991, the Arabia’s cargo was transformed into the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City. Articles ranged from fine China to carpentry tools to children’s toys to the world’s oldest pickles. We watched a 15 minute movie and were treated to a few words from Bob Hawley, one of the original 5 archaeologists. And, then we were left to ourselves for the next hour or more to wander the exhibits from the hold of the Arabia.
The collection is a work in progress as preservationists continue to clean 60 more tons of artifacts in a preservation lab that’s available at times for visitors to watch. More artifacts are added to the displays on an ongoing basis. The entire museum was cleaned and renovated in early 2013 and is just amazing. The stores are so vast I felt at times that I was in a pioneer department store, gazing at all the goods.
No gold bars were found. In fact, only 26 cents in coins turned up! There were gold artifacts including jewelry, powder horns, trays, and other items.