220 Tons of Daily Life in the 1850s: Steamboat Arabia

So many types of hardware all dug up and preserved from Steamboat Arabia in Kansas City, Missouri (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

So many types of hardware all excavated and preserved from Steamboat Arabia in Kansas City, Missouri. (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

“It’s like finding and recovering an 1850’s Walmart….”

They had to dig for it in a guy’s cornfield, because even though the Steamboat Arabia and her 220 tons of cargo sank in the Missouri River in 1856, the river moved around so much and changed its course so widely that the silt-locked wreck ended up 45 feet underground, a half-mile from where the river runs today.

The good news is that the cold, dark, airless conditions of her burial prevented deterioration for over a century.

Excavating and preserving one hat at a time from Steamboat Arabia cargo; a photo at the museum of one of the original diggers

Excavating and preserving one hat at a time from Steamboat Arabia cargo; a photo at the museum of one of the original diggers

Thanks to some determined treasure-hunters in 1987 (Kansas City area locals Jerry Mackey, David Luttrell, plus David, Greg and Bob Hawley) the steamboat and its contents were found, preserved in their entirety and are on jaw-dropping display today at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in the River Market neighborhood of downtown Kansas City, Missouri; it is the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

220 tons of cargo was aboard the steamer (mostly stock items headed for 54 general stores in various Kansas and Nebraska pioneer towns,) plus 130 passengers and a mule. All the people were saved when the Arabia was speared by a sheared-off tree, or “snag,” that was lurking below in the muddy, fast-moving waters of the Missouri, but the cargo went down along with the mule.

The mule’s bones are in one of the museum’s display cases now; with droll Midwestern humor they’ve named him, “Lawrence, of the Arabia.”

Two things struck me while I took a group tour of the artifacts with one of the very knowledgeable docents …. how much work it’s taken over decades to laboriously excavate, clean and display every single item of cargo down to individual buttons that had to have mud poked out of their buttonholes, and the some-might-call-it-crazy determination of the Hawleys and others to keep the entire collection together in one facility and display it in multiple rooms engorged with STUFF.

Hurray for crazy, I’d say.

Cleaned up buttons excavated from the Steamboat Arabia cargo (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Cleaned up buttons of every description, excavated from the Steamboat Arabia cargo (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Of the wooden steamboat itself, only the stern could be recovered in its entirety, and even that was a three and a half year process of carefully bathing the wood with polyethylene glycol at regular intervals to keep it from disintegrating when exposed to air.

Steamboat Arabia preserved stern section (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Steamboat Arabia preserved stern section (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

It’s the items of daily 1850s life, not gold or jewels, that are the treasure here, and their scope is breathtaking.

Ink pen nubs from Steamboat Arabia cargo, Kansas City MO (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

Ink pen nubs from Steamboat Arabia cargo, Kansas City MO (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

4000 boots and shoes. Sets of dishware.  Lightning rod insulators. Syrup jugs. Coffin screws. Jars of pickles (they’ve opened and tested a few, and they’re still fresh and sweet.) Horse curry combs. Glass scroll storage bottles, the “Tupperware of their day.” Fresh buttermilk. Bed springs. Medicinal “stomach bitters.” 107 yards of Chinese silk. Twelve different kinds of pie fillings. Gin. Buttons.

They’re still working on cleaning the mud and gunk off of things; the remaining 30% of the cargo awaiting cleanup and display fills a boxcar-sized freezer.

In the preservation lab: Steamboat Arabia muddy buckets and a big wad of nails before cleaning (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

In the preservation lab: Steamboat Arabia muddy buckets and a big wad of nails before cleaning (photo by Sheila Scarborough)

There are docent-led tours of the museum every 30 minutes, and we even met one of the original 1987 site diggers/excavators during our tour. Nearby is the City Market, with shops, restaurants and a busy farmers market. Tickets for the museum are $14.50, with discounted rates for seniors and children (the VisitKC tourism organization paid for my ticket during this visit.)

Allow plenty of time to wander the displays and marvel at the discoveries of the steamer that “never made it to St. Joe.”

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