A Missed “Gem” – The Steamboat Arabia Museum

Ever since posting the Gems of Missouri last month, I keep thinking of cool places I didn’t include. Like the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, MO.


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.

(Reprised from July 2, 2012)

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22 thoughts on “A Missed “Gem” – The Steamboat Arabia Museum”

  1. Tracy, this is so interesting. I’d love to see all that merchandise they unearthed. A great glimpse into the lives of the people on the frontier. Wow! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Tracy – I would have loved to have seen this museum before I started writing Full Steam Ahead – my June release. It features the steamboat industry quite heavily. Of course, most of my book deals with the horrors of boiler explosions, so those dears at the Steamboat Arabia museum would probably cringe to imagine ships like their beloved Arabia blowing up in my novel. Maybe it’s best that I didn’t go. 😉

  3. Tracy,

    I would just love to visit this museum–Looks like a place I could spend one entire day (I’d have to go without the hubby–he’d finish long before I did). LOL This is a great post, and I’m so glad you’re planning to go back and look again. Maybe I will be able to talk the dh into going up and going through it. It looks fabulous. And what a treasure trove!


  4. Cheryl, there’s lots of other stuff to look at in the immediate area. DH will be fine. And you could always bribe him – there’s tons to do in Kansas City, like baseball, football, racing… Surely there’d be something he’d enjoy in exchange for a day at the museum. 😀

  5. Wow, Tracy, this looks like a curator’s gold mine, and what an amazing amount of work preserving artifacts that were under the water for so long. I’ll have to put this museum on my to-do list.

  6. Kirsten, you would love this place. There’s so much restoration still ongoing they said the museum will be adding new items to the displays for a decade or more.

  7. Well dang, how did they know where to find it? What an amazing thing that must have been to discover a steam boat in somebody’s back yard.
    This was such an interesting article. I’ve been to Kansas City a couple of times and never knew this museum was there. Bummer.

  8. Buried treasure in a river…now that’s a story begging to be written. I’ve been through Kansas City, but it was a good many years ago. If I ever make it there again, this museum is definitely on my list of places to visit.

  9. I’m saving this, Tracy. I want to see it.
    There’s a museum build on the De Soto Bend Wildlife Area in Iowa about 45 minutes north of Omaha that holds the contents of a ship called The Bertrand. They found so much stuff when they excavated the Bertrand…including cases of matches and SOME OF THEM CAUGHT FIRE!!!!!! The matches ignited.
    It’s just the kind of stuff I can stare at and ask obscure questions about forever. And the museum curator has a master’s degree in Frontier History. Did you even know there was such a thing?
    The guy LOVED telling stories. He was fantastic.

  10. Thanks so much for the information on the museum and the Arabia. We have been through Kansas City but never stopped except for a meal. The Mid-West is an area we haven’t seen much of. One trip we will have to spend some time there. The cargo of the boat is a perfect time capsule of what settlers of the time wanted and needed.

    Mary Connealy, I will have to check the De Soto Bend Museum. We have been to Omaha, but were only there for a 3 day conference. It sounds like there is a lot to see in the area.

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