The Arabia Steamboat Museum

Location: Kansas City, Missouri

Webpage: Museum

General Description: On September 5, 1856, the steamboat Arabia hit a snag on the Missouri River that punctured its hull and sank to the bottom of the river.  All 130 passengers were able to escape the sinking ship, but 220 tons of cargo went to the bottom to be covered with mud and silt.  The cargo was destined for 16 towns on the frontier and represented everything that could be bought and shipped for the pre-Civil war frontier.  While some salvage operation were attempted to recover the whiskey barrels, which were above deck and never found, all of the cargo in the holds remained intact.  After 132 years it’s remains were found by David, Greg, and Bob Hawley, treasure hunters and owners of a refrigeration business in Independence.  By this time, the Missouri River had changed its course multiple times and the current location was under a cornfield in Wyndatte County, Kansas.  After confirming the wreck with test cores, they opened up a hole 80 by 20 feet.  After 3 months of careful digging they struck “pay-dirt” and began pulling up ton after ton of pre-Civil War artifacts.  While their original purpose was to sell the discoveries, they eventually decided to keep them and open a museum to display them.  They learned fresh-water preservation methods and began the long process of preservation which will take until at least 2022 to complete.  Organic material such as wood and leather are impregnated with polyethylene glycol (PEG) and then freeze dried.  Bottled and jarred fruits and beverages are injected with nitrogen and shoes, boots, and garments have to be resown since the cotton stitches have deteriorated.  This is by far the largest single collection of pre-Civil war artifacts in the world and the collection is growing every day.  The experience is similar to shopping at a modern department store with artifacts from every phase of life including fine plates and kitchen utensils, shop tools, clothes, bottled and canned food, medicine, saddles, and all kinds of tools.

Museum

Impressions:

1) This an amazing museum.  The tour begins with a 20 minute presentation where the tour guide describes the wreck, discovery, excavation, recovery, and preservation of the artifacts.  At the end of the tour is a short presentation made by the owners about their experience, after which you get to meet one of the owners and ask any question you have.  Then you are turned loose to be absolutely blown away with the number and variety of the artifacts already preserved and to realize they are less than half way through the process!!

TourGuide

2) They have displays of dishes, fine china, glasses, silverware, etc that would be found in the kitchen and dining room.  There are displays of all the hardware from nails to saws and wood working tools.  Displays of clothing from leather boots, felt hats, dresses, and formal wear.  Canned and bottled food, including champagne.  It is interesting that the owners have actually sampled these items and found them to be as fresh as when they were bottled!

3) The hull of the ship was simply too big to salvage, however, they did recover a section of the stem and paddle wheel.  These large items had to be bathed every night in PEG to preserve them while they were on display to the public.  You can actually see remains of the paint on the side of the stem.  They also salvage the entire boiler room and steam engine which are on display as well.  Simply amazing!