Window into history

Few spots where tourists go pique the imagination like the Arabia Steamboat Museum, a museum built (in 1991) to exhibit a short-lived vessel that carried a cargo fit for kings and that sank five years before the Civil War began.

For more than a century, the steamboat lay buried in a muddy grave. Then, a dozen years ago, it was brought up -- with nearly every item on board still intact. Its cargo ranged from leather boots to cognac to glass beads, more than 200 tons of goods that had been destined for the frontier.

At the museum, situated some 10 miles south of where the swirling, chocolate waters of the Missouri River had claimed the Arabia after it hit a snag, those parts that could be salvaged have been arrayed to resemble a steamboat.

What couldn't be salvaged -- having succumbed to time, mud and the river -- has been re-created. A life-size paddlewheel turns in a pool of water at the museum entrance. A full-scale replica of the Arabia's main deck, with its original boilers, engine and anchor, makes up much of the museum's 30,000-square-foot display area. Large color photos detailing milestones in the salvage work line the walls.

For anyone who loves history and is intrigued with the golden age of steamboating, this is the place to be. Roaming the museum, you feel like a passenger on the Arabia, hearing the swish of water as the paddlewheel propels the steamboat up the Old Muddy, almost smelling the river, feeling the heat from the boiler, the shudder of the deck.

In fact, visitors here take a rare look into a 19th Century time capsule, a pre-Civil War equivalent of Wal-Mart. Just about anything folks on the frontier could possibly have needed or wanted is here.

A 14-minute documentary in the museum's 80-seat theater sets the stage for a trip into history. It tells the story of the 181-foot Arabia, built in Pennsylvania in 1853 and operated for three years on the Ohio and Missouri Rivers.

In August 1856, it was outfitted in St. Louis with 222 tons of cargo bound for Sioux City, Iowa. With 130 passengers and a mule on board, it steamed west.

It's possible the steamboat stopped in Kansas City; no one knows for sure. But on the evening of Sept. 5, it had gotten just an hour north of the town when, at Quindaro Bend, it struck a large sycamore tree bobbing below the surface of the river.

Within 10 minutes the impaled boat sank along with its entire cargo. However, all the passengers (except for the unfortunate mule that was tied up on deck, and no one thought to free) got safely ashore.

David Hawley, one of the salvagers and co-director of the museum, points out that in 1856 there were few options available for recovery of cargo from the bottom of the river, so generally a steamboat's sinking was soon forgotten. That is, unless there was a "significant reason to remember," he said.

In this case the reason was the hope of recovering the side-wheeler's freight, which some (mistakenly) believed was gold and silver coins -- and 400 barrels of Kentucky whiskey.

Attempts to bring it up started in 1877 but were futile. Then, over the years, the river changed its course.

But in 1988, after a three-year search, River Salvage Inc., a group of steamboat enthusiasts from Independence, Mo., working with a steel sounding rod, discovered the boat 45 feet down in a Kansas farm field, half a mile from the river.

It took months of carting away loads of silt, working inside a caisson to prevent water from filling the cavity. But finally the steamboat was raised -- and trappings of life on the frontier spilled from the hold.

It was a bonanza, the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in existence anywhere, and, amazingly, nearly everything was undamaged.

"It's easier to list what we didn't find than what we did," said Hawley, still awed by the discovery. "There were no watches, anvils or knitting needles, but that's about it."

There were 4,000 pairs of leather boots and shoes, from three-inch-long children's shoes to knee-high men's boots; 100 pairs of India rubber overshoes made by the Ford and Goodyear Co.;150 leather hides and 65 bolts of fabric for frontier tailors, cobblers and seamstresses; plus a spectrum of sewing supplies, china and brass buttons, Indian trade beads -- more than five million of those -- and thousands of needles and pins.

Also discovered were hundreds of jars, bottles and tin cans containing pickles, pie fillings, cheese, catsup, oysters, champagne and more. (The salvage workers opened a bottle of champagne and found it to still be fizzy, Hawley said.)

People today who think the frontier was populated only by a rough-and-tumble lot will be surprised to see the elegant jewelry, dozens of delicate gold and porcelain earrings and pendants. Not to mention the fur coats, bolts of black silk, coffee beans and cigars from Brazil, thousands of pieces of china -- much of it elegant Wedgwood from England -- and bottles of perfume, and writing pens -- 63 different styles -- from France.

Hawley invites visitors (more than one million have come in the museum's eight years) to "travel back in time to when our great-grandparents were children."

"The artifacts are testament to 19th Century technology, which is often underestimated today," he said. "The boat's like a window into history, history we can go on enjoying."



The Arabia Steamboat Museum is located at 400 Grand Ave. in Kansas City, Mo. It is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $7.50 for adults, $3.75 for ages 4-12, and free for age 3 and under.


Call 816-471-4030; for group reservations call 816-471-1856; fax 816-471-1616;