Sunday, April 1, 2012

A Visit to Steamboat Arabia Museum

I first became aware of the steamboat Arabia when I saw a Discovery Channel-type documentary about 12 years ago. I told myself that if I ever got to Kansas City, Missouri I would go take a look. I had that opportunity two years ago when I drove out to Topeka, Kansas for the National Underground Railroad Conference to present a paper, but I guess I was too worn out from the drive to motivate myself to stop.

Fortunately, I received another chance to visit this amazing place when I attended the National Council for History Education conference last weekend. My plane arrived around noon on Thursday and I finally got to the hotel at about 1:00 p.m. I took a taxi and was at the museum in about ten or fifteen minutes.

The museum advertises itself as "200 tons of treasure" but I think even that description sells the place short. The short version of the history is the Arabia sank in 1856 after hitting a snag in the Missouri River. Its holdings sat at the bottom of the river that had changed course for 130 years. It was finally discovered and unearthed in 1988 under 45 feet of dirt and about a half mile from the current bank of the river. The aerial picture above shows the bend in the river and the location of the buried boat.

Another birds-eye view shows the size of the boat outlined in white. One can appreciate its size when compared to the semi tractor and flatbed trailer at the top-left of the picture. The location of the boat was in a cornfield as the river changed course over the years. The excavation crew had to work quickly as the farm was leased for spring planting the year it was unearthed.

Most of the items recovered were in excellent condition due to their lack of exposure to oxygen, but the museum staff has meticulously worked to preserve the plethora of everyday items such as curry combs for horses, frying pans and tinware.

An enormous amount of dishware was salvaged, much of it undamaged and packed in barrels with straw. Both common dishware such as Queensware and ironstone, as well as more fancy Wedgwood china from Staffordshire, England was brought up from the boat's holdings.

Sewing notions such as thimbles, pins, needles, buttons, and hooks were found in abundance.

Bottled and pickled foods such olives and pickles apparently survived the 130 years underground. One excavation worker admitted to trying the pickles and finding them still tasty.

Fancy dishware in multiple shapes and sizes. Platters, dishes, cups, saucers, pitchers, pots and bowls, all beautifully preserved.

1856 clothes pins and a sad iron.

Clay pipe bowls in the center and pipe stems to the left.

A diversity of tools: axes, picks, hatchets, jack planes, awls, augers and chisels among others.

Dishes and dishes of glass buttons of different colors and print designs.

Locks, handles, hangers and nails of all kinds.

It is amazing that the tinware that was discovered corroded so little. There were coffee pots, scoops, buckets, tin cups, colanders, and candle holders among other things.

Even more tools: sharpening stones, circular saws, handsaws, bow saws and ax handles.

The shoes and boots were some of the coolest items in the museum in my opinion. There were dozens and dozens of pairs for men, women and children. Some were fancy, while others were more plain everyday work boots and shoes.

Goodyear's patent rubber shoe covers.

Hardware of all kinds: locks and door knobs among other items.

Brass powder flasks, scissors, toothbrushes, eye glasses and miscellaneous other items.

Castor set for table condiment bottles.

Most steamboats that sank in river travel did so because their boilers were over worked and exploded, but the Arabia sank because of a snag, so the boilers from it were recovered too. Their size shows the power needed to move a steamboat loaded with 200 tons of goods up the swift flowing Missouri River.

Boilers and paddle flywheel.

The Arabia's anchor. It was over 6 feet tall.

The Arabia was side-wheel steamboat and its size was simply amazing.

The stern of the Arabia shows its detailed construction and size.

I will be the first to admit that the pictures that I have shared here do not come close to doing the museum justice. It is something that should really be experienced in person.

For more information on the musuem check out their website at:

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