In August 1856, the steam-powered riverboat Arabia left her dock in St Louis and headed up the Missouri River to Kansas City with 200 tons of cargo and 130 passengers. It would be her last voyage.
When the American West opened up for settlement in the 1840s, a constant stream of homesteaders passed through St Louis on their way to a new life. Although we most often tend to picture homesteaders on trains or in long convoys of Conestoga Wagons, one of the most popular ways to travel west from St Louis was by riverboat. The Missouri River, also called “The Big Muddy” and “The Mighty Mo”, was, it was said by settlers, “too thick to drink and too thin to plow”, but it offered a direct water route west and acted as a highway. Hundreds of steam-driven paddle boats plied its waters.
One of these was the Arabia. With a wood-fired engine and twin sidewheels, she was a “packet ship”, meaning that she was equipped to carry both cargo and passengers. Built in 1853, she sailed the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for about a year before moving to the Missouri route, going as far west as the Yellowstone River in North Dakota.
In March 1856, the ship played a minor role in the lead-up to the Civil War. At this time, Kansas territory was a battleground between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, who were fighting over whether the state should legalize slavery. Armed private armies roamed the area attacking each other, and the conflict became known as “Bleeding Kansas”. In the middle of all this, a group of abolitionists in Massachussetts smuggled a case of Sharps rifles all the way to Lexington, Missouri, where they were loaded onto the Arabia in a wooden case labeled as “Carpenter’s Tools” for delivery in Kansas. Pro-slavery militiamen found out about it, stopped the ship and boarded her, and confiscated all the guns. Two of these confiscated rifles are now on display in the museum.
Shortly after this incident, in late August 1856, the Arabia left St Louis for a routine run to Kansas City. Her deck cabins held 130 passengers. In her hold were hundreds of barrels packed with dishware, shoes, farm tools, food, clothing, and two disassembled pre-fabricated wooden cottages, all bound for sale in local General Stores.
At that time, the Missouri River was wider than it is now, but also shallower. The constant mud reduced underwater visibility to zero, and this presented serious danger to river traffic from submerged rocks and sandbars. Most dangerous of all, however, were the “snags”—waterlogged tree trunks, just beneath the surface, that had fallen into the river, floated downstream, and became lodged in the mucky bottom. They could be anywhere on the river, and presented a constant hazard. At least 300 of the 400-odd riverboats known to have been wrecked along the length of the Missouri River were victims of snags.
And on September 5, 1856, the Arabia joined them. Just a few miles out from her final stop in Parkville, she hit a submerged snag running at full speed. The impact lifted her bow out of the water and holed her hull. As water began pouring in, the passengers all rushed to the upper deck, and the ship rested on the river bottom with just her upper deck protruding. None of the passengers was injured, and they were all safely ferried to shore by rowboat.
The next day, a salvage team returned to the site to retrieve the cargo (particularly the most valuable of all—the 400 barrels of Kentucky Bourbon whiskey that were onboard), but the wreck had already been swallowed up by the thick layer of river mud, and only the two smokestacks and the roof of the pilot house now remained above water. These were quickly broken up by the current and washed away downstream. (Also washed away downstream, it is presumed, were all of the whiskey barrels—none of them was ever found.) Over the next 100 years, the wooden hull was covered by silt and buried in the cold airless mud, where it was perfectly preserved.
In 1988, a local businessman named Bob Hawley became interested in the story of the Arabia and, after realizing that the Missouri River had changed its course over the decades and the ship may no longer be underwater, decided to do some investigating. By overlaying old river maps with modern satellite images, he was able to find traces of the previous riverbank in a cornfield about half a mile away from the present river. Then, using a magnetometer at the site, Hawley was able to confirm the presence of a large underground metal object.
The land was owned by a local Judge, who granted permission to excavate the site on the condition that the field be restored before the spring planting season. Working quickly, Hawley drilled a number of cores in the area until he hit a wooden object. More drilling revealed the outline of a rectangular structure 170 feet long. The Arabia was 171 feet from stem to stern. Now convinced that he had found the ship, Hawley started digging.
It was an immense effort. Although the site was on dry land, the wreck was 45 feet under the surface, and still below the water table. Twenty high-capacity pumps had to be brought in to drain the excavation, and bulldozers, cranes and other heavy equipment were needed to strip away the layers of river sediment. Finally, on November 26, they found pieces of wood from the paddlewheel (the wheels had still been turning when the Arabia sank, and they shattered when they hit the river bottom.) Later that same day, they found a remarkably-preserved rubber boot. Then, a week later, they uncovered a wooden barrel which contained pieces of dishware, including Wedgewood pottery—which was known to have been aboard the Arabia. Within days, they began finding dozens, then hundreds, of other objects. It would turn out to be the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the US.
The sheer scale of the find would change Hawley’s plans completely. Until then, he had more or less been on an adventurous treasure hunt, and planned on selling whatever items he found. But once he realized the extent of the wreck site, he decided that the entire collection should be kept together, and a museum should be established to exhibit it.
Nothing like this had ever been done before, though: underwater archaeology was just in its infancy in 1988, and nobody was quite sure how best to preserve the artifacts—in particular, the large intact pieces of the Arabia’s wooden hull, still buried in the mud. After consulting with various archeologists, the team developed a protocol that is basically the same one still used today. As each artifact was extracted, it was immediately frozen in a block of ice to protect it (using a freezer donated by a local restaurant). Small objects would then be carefully freeze-dried in a dryer to prevent them from deteriorating. Larger objects (such as the hull sections) were soaked with polyethylene glycol solution, which would over time replace all the water inside and act as a preservative.
The team also found the skeleton of the wreck’s only victim—a mule that had been tied to a piece of machinery on deck. As they excavated his remains, they named him, in honor of the ship, “Lawrence of Arabia”.
Today, the “Treasures From the Steamship Arabia” museum is one of the most-visited tourist attractions in Kansas City. Guided tours tell the ship’s story and take visitors past a 20-ton section of the Arabia’s stern, with the rudder still intact and with traces of the original white paint still visible. An entire exhibit hall shows off a portion of the artifacts that were recovered from inside the ship’s hold: there are shoes, woodworking tools, umbrellas, unbroken perfume bottles, children’s toys, pocketknives, dishes, pistols, whale-oil lamps, window panes, and even several glass bottles of coffee and pickles, still sealed and still edible. It is a remarkable view into frontier life. (Our tour guide referred to it as “a 19th-century Walmart”.)
In another room lies the ship’s four iron boilers, and a large broken-off piece of the walnut-tree snag that sank the Arabia—it was found inside the wreck. Also on display here is a section of her wooden hull and metal driveshaft with a reconstructed 28-foot paddlewheel. And next to that, in the position in which he was found lying in the mud—still wearing his saddle and bridle—is poor Lawrence the mule.