The Steamboat Arabia

Tuesday morning after a breakfast at McDonald’s, I made my way to the Arabia Steamboat Museum.  Everyone I talked to about my trip to Kansas City had said I had to visit this museum.  All I knew about it was that a steamboat had sunk and this museum was about that.

What a great place to visit!  I learned that the Steamboat Arabia was a packet boat which meant it was carrying cargo as well as passengers up the Missouri River.  In 1856, it had come from St. Louis to Kansas City in just under a week.  Then it got snagged on a tree snag and sunk in 15 feet of water.  All the passengers were saved; the only fatality was a mule.  Crews on the steamboats plying the river cut trees on the banks for fuel for the steam boilers on the boats.  The stumps, etc., washed into the river as a result of erosion, floods, etc.  Once in the river, they were a dangerous hazard for other boats.  It was getting snagged on one of these tree snags which caused the demise of the Arabia.

There were rumors about the cargo which had gone down with her.  One rumor was that numerous barrels of Kentucky’s finest whiskey had been on board.  No one ever found any of it, though.  In 1988 after three years of research, five men did find the final resting place of the Arabia — in a cornfield in Kansas.  During the winter, they began excavation, digging a hole the size of a football field and pumping out multiple thousands of gallons of water (because of the high water table) which they returned to the river.  They weren’t able to get the entire boat out but they did salvage part of it and a great quantity of the cargo.  They found boots, shoes, dishes, buttons, 5 million trade beads, guns, various tools, and a host of other things.  Some things were packed in personal boxes, boxes which belonged to the passengers.  Other items were in store boxes, destined for frontier general stores.

By spring, the excavation was done and the dirt pushed back over the remains of the Arabia.  The farmer planted his spring crop above her once again.  The men who had found her set about cleaning the items they had found and started work on preserving the Arabia’s remains.  No one in the U.S. knew much about doing fresh water preservation so they turned to a company in Canada which told them how to go about preserving these remains.

The tour of the museum started with a docent telling us about the men finding the boat and a little about the preservation efforts.  Then we watched a video of the excavation.  At the close of it, one of the five men who were involved took questions from the group.  He explained that this was a private effort; no government funding was involved in it or the museum they built to house the many artifacts.  Then we were free to wander in the museum looking at the items which have been cleaned and displayed.  They still have many more items to clean.  Space in the museum is getting filled and they (the owners) are unsure what they’ll do with the rest of the things.   He said they had two pre-fab cabins but the museum doesn’t have the space to display them.

I’m joining the group of folks who highly recommend this museum.  If you are ever in Kansas City, make a point to visit.

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