A few weeks ago my dh and I visited the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City. Set as a cornerstone for the River Market—a gathering of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, seeds, hand-me-downs, bbq and some rather fine coffee—the museum offered me a glimpse into life in the mid 1800s.
“The Arabia Steamboat Museum is home to a true time capsule of frontier life in the 1800s. The Arabia was headed up the Missouri River in the fall of 1856 when she struck a tree snag and sank just north of Kansas City. Her cargo hold was full of 200 tons of supplies bound for general stores and pioneer settlements.” [http://www.visitkc.com/member-details/index.aspx?id=28981]
The Arabia was a typical western steamboat. A twin side-wheel steamer, she was built long and flat to carry maximum cargo. Measuring 171 feet long, with three decks and a wheel house above the water line, she plied the waters of the mighty Missouri River, pushing upstream at more than 5 miles per hour.
On August 30, she left St. Louis headed for Sioux City, Iowa, by way of Kansas (present-day Kansas City, MO), Weston (MO), St. Joseph (MO), and Council Bluffs (IA). The Missouri River was wide and shallow and her rushing muddy waters hid dangerous snags—tree trunks that had fallen into the water when the river undercut their roots. Going full steam upriver against the current the Arabia struck the trunk of a large submerged walnut tree that smashed her hull open. She sank fast, until only the wheelhouse was visible, and that quickly broke up in the current.
All the 130 passengers and crew got off safely, but the cargo was buried in sand and mud at the bottom of the Missouri. Over the years, the river changed course with the floods and dry times, layering the site of the wreck under successive years of dirt. When the Arabia was finally located in 1986 she lay in a farmer’s corn field half a mile from the current river’s course and under 45 feet of dirt—and below the water table.
It took 4 months and twenty (20) irrigation wells pumping out up to 20,000 gallons of water per minute to get to the Arabia. The team of family and friends brought up boxes, barrels and crates of frontier merchandise, both necessities and available luxuries, items meant for General Stores all along the river: castor oil, needles, nutmegs, windowpanes, brass and silver locks and keys, eyeglasses, syrup bottles, rubber overshoes and wedding bands; jars of pickles that were still edible (yes, one of the team tried one); French perfume that still held it’s scent thanks to the ambergris that was a main ingredient; carpenter’s tools; a Frozen Charlotte figurine; buttons and scissors; even over one million Venetian glass beads meant as trade goods.
The museum built specifically to house this collection is still a work in progress. Though there are thousands of items already cleaned and displayed, the lab runs almost daily, cleaning, preserving and cataloging the amazing number of artifacts. The latest estimate is another fifteen years of work await the lab techs.
I got to watch as a boot was coated with preservative so it wouldn’t dry out after a century under water. I even got to try a bit of the French perfume that their scientists recreated from the bottles found in among the cargo (minus the ambergris, thank goodness).
If you’re ever in Kansas City, I highly recommend this museum. I know we’ll be returning soon—there was just too much to see in one visit.