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A Brief History of the Steamboat Arabia and the Arabia Steamboat Museum

From the Perspective a Recent Insider


Hurricane Damaged Boats SaleI first worked at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in 1996 before I left to go to graduate school at the George Washington Museum. I recently rejoined the weekend Tour Guide force there in order to earn money for our adoption. I resigned after a year and half due to pain in my feet. It's a fun job but tour guides stand and walk a lot and it's rough on the feet.

History

The steamboat Arabia was built in Brownsville, PA in 1853. She ran for a few years on the Ohio and Mississippi before she moved to the Missouri. The Missouri River was a tough river to navigate and many boats sank during the steamboating age. The current was often shallow with shifting sandbars and thousands of snags. Steamboats were so lucrative, though, that one successful trip could make up the cost of the boat. In fact, during the golden age for steamboating, a boat would leave St. Louis every hour and head up the river. Today, upwards of 400 boats still lay beneath the river or the farm fields that now occupy the old river channel.

The Arabia was quite well known for being able to navigate the shallow waters of the Missouri. She could float, fully-loaded with 220 tons of cargo, in 4 feet of water. She was often the first boat out in the spring and the last boat in in the fall.

Her last trip was in September of 1856. On the 6th of the month, she passed the Town of Kansas, as Kansas City was known then. She was carrying a full load, including 400 barrels of Kentucky's finest whiskey, a fact which would make her somewhat famous. That evening, just one mile down river from Parkville, MO, she hit a tree snag. Snags are not floating lots, but nearly whole trees, with roots holding them into the mud. They could be completely submerged, and yet, when a boat hit, they had no where to go except through the boat. The Arabia could make about 6 miles an hour upstream. Even then the inertia and force was enough to snap the snag in two. She sank fifteen feet to the bottom of the river in less than 10 minutes. Thereafter, she settled into the mud at about a foot an hour.

The 130 people on board--deck passengers, cabin passengers, and crew-scrambled to the upper decks to stay above the water. Almost immediately a handful of crewmen climbed into the one small lifeboat aboard and paddled away. They feared a boiler explosion. These occurred when hot boilers met the cold water of the river. Boiler explosions were horrendous. People could be boiled alive in their cabins or thrown tens of feet into the air. When the Arabia did not explode, the men paddled back and began to ferry the rest of the passengers and crew to the shore. They left their belongings-those they could get off the boat in time-in the woods and went in to Parkville for the night.

By the next day, only the top of the pilot house and two smokestacks were visible above the water as the passengers returned for their belongings. Unfortunately, thieves had come during the night and stolen their valuables. Some passengers got on another boat heading up river. Others found other forms of transportation. One family, a mother with her children, walked to St. Joseph to meet her husband. She would not get back on another boat.

The whiskey became a legend. Some would claim they had it. Others speculated it was buried somewhere. It is more likely it was stored on the main deck and was washed away by the river. Another boat did come alongside the Arabia before she submerged completely. They took an engine from one paddle wheel, some furniture and possibly the safes from the Hurricane and Texas decks, and a dozen or so barrels of dishes from the Main deck. If that boat had taken the whiskey, it would have made the news of the day. The whiskey was never seen again.

There was one casualty of the sinking of the Arabia. A mule, left behind by his carpenter owner, drowned on the Main deck. The owner told a reporter that he cut the mule loose and pushed, pulled, kicked, and screamed but the mule was a stubborn, Missouri mule and refused to leave. Sadly, when the Arabia was found, the mule's skeleton was still died to a lumber mill jack. He'd never been cut loose. He now lies in his own case in the museum.

Overtime, the river changed course. At the bend where the Arabia sank, the river moved north, depositing soil on the land to the south. In the 1860's, Elijah Sorter bought that land for a farm from the Wyandotte Indians. In the 1890's the Army Corps of Engineers came to make the Missouri River safer for navigation. In the process, they pulled 18, 000 tree snags from the river.

The Excavation

David Hawley was on a call for his family's heating and cooling business when his customer showed him his hobby room. One wall was filled with UFO paraphernalia Another had a map with hundreds of sunken steamboats plotted along it. David was hooked. He told his family and the idea began: They would find up a steamboat, dig up the cargo, sell it, and make some money. David, along with his brother, Greg, and father, Bob, was joined in this endeavor by two friends. Jerry Mackey owned a Hi-Boy restaurant in Independence, MO. Dave Luttrell was in construction.

The began their search in the library, researching boats by using old books and newspaper articles. And the plotted the location of the boats by superimposing the older river onto the river as it is today. Many of the boats would now be found under dry land. They physically found ten boats and decided to dig the Arabia for several reasons. She sank while travelling up the Missouri River and sank before she could make her first stop. Thus all the cargo would have been on board when she sank. The farm in Kansas where she now would reside was not far from the Independence homes. And they had a very good deal with the farmer.

The farm was owned by Elijah Sorter grandson, Norman. He was a retired judge from Wyandotte county and heard about the boat under their fields since he was a child. He warned the men that they would spend their money and never see the Arabia but agreed to let them try. In return, he would get 15% of the sale of the cargo.

They used a rented proton-magnetometer to pinpoint the location of the boilers under the soil. Then they used a core drill to mark her outline. When the drill sank easily to the soil and came back up the same way, it missed the boat. But when it stopped or vibrated, they marked the spot with a flag. They could then connect all the flags with a chalk outline, revealing how the Arabia was situated under the ground. The drill also revealed her depth: 45 feet.

The men had gathered between them $60, 000, which they quickly ran out of simply buying equipment. They were able to scrape together some more and began to dig. They used heavy equipment (bulldozer, backhoe, crane) to dig down into the ground and used pumps to remove the water. The water table began at 10 feet. It was basically the Missouri River, underground. They had 12 pumps all pumping 1, 000 gallons of water a second. They were about four feet above the Main deck when they ran out of money.

As they uncovered the Arabia, it became obvious they all the upper decks had been washed away. Only the Main deck and below was there. But the Main deck sat above the cargo hold, which, of course, is where the bulk of her cargo was carried.

As they were packing up that night, Bob Hawley noticed a circle in the sand. He waded out and found it was the top of a large barrel. He opened it and pulled out a beautiful blue and white dish. The barrel was full of them. They removed the dishes, cleaned them, and set them up on display in one of their homes. Then they invited 5 rich friends over and sold stock in their company, River Salvage, Inc. They raised $150, 000 dollars. They were able to dig for another month.

During that month they installed another 8 pumps, the water dropped, and the Arabia gave up her cargo. Her boilers were still in place. The firebox doors opened easily and revealed a half-burnt log from the last fire on the Arabia. The icebox still contained bones from the last meal of the cabin passengers. There was an entire sawmill on the stern, which is, of course where they found the mule's skeleton. There was more cargo here and there on the Main deck as well. At one point, Bob looked down and saw something sparkling in the sand in a 4 foot square on the deck. Beads. Hundreds of thousands of beads. They grabbed buckets and salvaged as many as they could. They'd later be counted at 3.5 million beads from Italy and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).

At this point, they could prove there was cargo on board and they were able to finance the rest of the dig and start the museum.

They said it was like Christmas every day, opening boxes and barrels to see what was inside. The conditions could hardly have been better for the cargo as it was buried. There was no sunlight that deep under the ground. Bright red yarn, colored dishes and clothes, fruit pie fillings. The bolts of black silk were flawless. There was also no oxygen. Iron didn't rust. Scissors could have still cut paper. The water constantly flowed, never stagnating. The men dug over 4 months the winter, providing a colder environment for the artifacts as they were excavated. And there was even a neutral ph in the soil. The men salvaged 200 tons of cargo.

The hull of the boat was significantly damaged and a block long. That fact, and the frailty of water-logged wood meant that, though they had the ability to lift it from the ground, the hull could not be preserved in time. They decided to take only 12 feet of the stern, which was the best preserved part. The artifacts were taken to storage. Some would end up in Jerry Mackey's freezers. Others were immersed in tubs of water and stored in some limestone cave warehouses in Kansas City. Still others were stored dry in the basements and cellars and garages of the diggers. The stern would be placed in a makeshift pond. A large hole was dug in Dave Luttrell's back yard and lined with plastic. The stern and other large wood pieces were lowered inside and garden hose ran constantly for 2 years as they researched how to preserve it.

Along the way, the men had decided not to sell the cargo. The dishes and guns and such would have sold easily. But the organic items would have cost too much to preserve. They would have to be discarded. But both kinds of artifacts together told a story about life in the frontier. The men decided that story was worth more than the money. They decided to keep the cargo and set up a museum to share it with the community. Judge Sorter liked the idea, especially as he would have had to clean his share of the artifacts-a big job even for 155. He let them have his 15%, asking only for 25 items to give to his family.

The next few years were spent cleaning artifacts and renovating a storage facility for wholesale foods at the City Market. It had lain unused for sometime and the city was looking for new tenants. The banker continued to loan money and the museum was created from that storage facility, with a gift shop above. The museum would become the anchor for a revitalized City Market in downtown Kansas City.

The Museum

On November 13, 1991, exactly 3 years after the dig was started, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened. A tour guide takes groups though. She tells the story of the sinking and the dig. Visitors see the stern and then sit for a 14-minute movie. Their tour guide then takes them into the Treasure Rooms, highlighting some of the luxury items of the cargo as an introduction. There are dishes from England, coffee from South America, French perfume, and those 3 million seed and satin beads. Boots, a hat, a pistol, a scale, and powder flasks are among the articles in the men's display. Jewelry, whale oil lamps, coins, and a tiny little doll are among the items in the ladies' and children's display. The visitors are then set free to view cargo. The tour guide stays with them to answer questions but they can move at their own pace. Displays are filled with objects, tinware, china, glass bottles, cutlery, cigar boxes, plugs of chewing tobacco, guns, knives, wood working tools, clothing, leather, hardware. There is also an area called the General Store, set up to look like a general store might at the time. On one wall is a refrigerated case with green pickles, assorted pie fruits, gin, champagne, stomach bitters and cosmetics.

Visitors also get to see the lab. They can observe and learn how each kind of artifact is preserved and see examples of artifacts preservation. In the hardware display, there are 17 kegs of loose, black nails. In the lab, there are three kegs of nails stuck together with mud concrete and flash rusted on the surface. (Rust only happened after the dig, which oxygen was introduced.) They see a freeze dryer with boots or pieces of wood inside. The lab technician is happy to answer questions and explain the process. Ninety percent of all preservation goes on in this lab. A larger lab is in the back to handle large items and wet items as there are drains in the floor. To date, about 2/3 of the cargo has been cleaned and preserved. It's a slow process, especially when the lab technician stops work to explain to the visitors. But at the museum, that interaction with the visitors is seen as just as important as the actual preservation.

Still, each year they average another 1, 000 artifacts cleaned and preserved. And once items are preserved, they go out on display. This museum has a different philosophy than most. They want to put everything on display, showing a visitor just what an average steamboat could hold in this time.

As visitors leave the lab, they step onto a replica of the Main desk, with the boilers and one wheel with it's engine in their proper places. The boat was 171 feet long and 54 feet wide (if you count the width of the wheels as well). Displayed in front of the boilers is a large piece of wood. It's the part of the snag that broke off and got stuck in the cargo hold as it sank the boat.

Displays along the sides highlight the dig or showcase various aspects of life on a steam boat. 10-20% of the cargo recovered are personal items, things that actually belonged to the passengers. Deck passengers were the lower classes while richer folks were Cabin passengers. Deck passengers had to bring their own bedding and food and just find a spot on the Main deck. Cabin passengers had their own cabins with beds and washbasins and access to a central dining room for 4-5 meals each day. There are also displays for crew members and trade with Native Americans.

One of the final things visitors see is the mule. He's lying as he fell, on a piece of the original deck, still saddled and tied to a lumber mill jack. He's been given a name by the museum. They call him Lawrence, of the Arabia.

A Tribute

The Hawleys are some of the nicest bosses anyone could have. Flo Hawley, Bob's wife, runs the gift shop upstairs. Bob, Greg, and David rotated their schedules, so that one of them was always on hand to talk to visitors. Jerry Mackey comes by now and then to recount the ballad of Frozen Charlotte or tell about the pre-Civil War sweet pickle he ate.

Early this year, late on a Saturday night, I received a call. Greg Hawley, with whom I had just worked that day, had died in a car crash. Two young men were racing down I-70 and clipped his truck as they passed. His truck rolled multiple times and he was ejected. He died shortly after in the hospital.

Greg Hawley was a special person. He was excited to be looking for another boat. A keel boat that sank in 1822, carrying the young men that would become our famous mountain men. The Enterprize. One of two boats that made up the maiden voyage of the Rockey Mountain Fur Company. Hundreds of people waited in line for hours in the cold to pay their respects at his memorial service. I was proud to be one of them.

Sources

All this comes from my memory. As a tour guide, I had to memorize the story to tell to groups. I've thrown in a lot more here, things I gleaned from listening to Bob, Greg, and David talk to tour groups. They are the ones who did the research. They dug the boat and excavated her cargo. They contacted the Canadian Conservation Institute, who taught them, by phone and mail, how to preserve. They taught us. Everything I know about that museum, about the Arabia, and about the Missouri River come from these guys.

I've provided some photos here, but really, you need to see this for yourselves. It is a wonderful museum with more artifacts than your likely to ever see in the same amount of space. It's overflowing and looking for a new home. If you're not from KC, come visit us and see the Arabia for yourself. If you are from around here, what are you waiting for?

Published by Gabrielle Person

Gabrielle Person has a BA in History, an MA in Museum Studies, and is an MCDST. She's a gadget girl, computer junkie, kitten fosterer & fiction writer. She taught English in the Czech Republic for a year and...  View profile

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