Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City – A Research Gem

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.”   []

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.

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15 thoughts on “Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City – A Research Gem”

  1. Great post, Tracy. What a treasure this is, a real trip back into history. If I’m ever in the area, I’ll be certain to look it up. I rode a sternwheeler across Lake Tahoe and of course the one at Disneyland. I just love ’em.

    Thanks for the interesting topic

  2. Loved this post, Tracy. I have visited this treasure and found it to be super interesting. I would reccommend it to everyone!

  3. Opp it is by a favorite author or is a boo a favorite author reccommended.s forgot to say that I read reviews when I find them but am more likly toi read a book because of the cover or

  4. Morning all. What a fascinating place. I feel bad sitting here in my cool house while a lot of the mid-west and east are out of electricity.
    Stay cool or as cool as you can.

  5. Hi Connie, I’m glad to hear you visited the Museum. Wasn’t it fascinating? And our guide was a history prof who specialized in that time period. Made the tour even better.

  6. Morning, Tanya. You would love this museum. There was so much to look at my legs were tired long before I wanted to stop looking. Can’t wait to visit again!

  7. Wow, how interesting, Tracy!! That museum must’ve been an awesome place to visit. And what an experience to see all those goods in one place. If I ever get to Kansas City this place will be first on my list to visit. I really enjoyed your post.

  8. Oh my, my last post is garbage! I am tring to do this with my left hand as my right is bandaged in 7 layers due to lymphodema following breast cancer surgery. Sorr.

    I meant to say that I mostly go by the cover and favorite authors. I also read books that my favorites reccomend.

  9. Wow, a museum in action! What a fun day that must have been, Tracy. So much history!

    Hi Connie, I’m so sorry you’re going through a rough time . . . Gentle hugs to you.

  10. Tracy,what an interesting place to visit. I know it’s going right up to the top of my list of places to see. Thanks for the great information. Hugs, P

    PS: Connie, my thoughts and prayers are with you. Take care of yourself, and you’re a brave lady to try to even type anything. Thanks for being such a faithful follower of P&P.

  11. Hi Tracy, Great post! We visited this museum several years ago and your story of your visit really captures that experience. I would love to go back again. The sinking, the recovery, the restoration process and the inventory itself are all fascinating to me. Thanks for bringing back some great memories!
    Connie, I’m sending up prayers for your speedy recovery.

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