The Steamboat Arabia was built in Pennsylvania in 1853 and spent three years shuttling passengers and cargo through the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, back when rivers were the super-highways of the nation. On August 30, 1856, the steamboat was traveling up the Missouri River when it hit a walnut tree below the water’s surface, river rushed into the hull of the boat, and it sank in a matter of minutes. Luckily, there were few passengers aboard, and there was no loss of human life.
130 years later, Norman Sortor’s family would often tell stories of the sunken steamboat buried by time on their Kansas farm, but they were always told with a grain of salt. But in 1987 it became reality when four men appeared on the farm with a proton magnetometer (an instrument that detects iron below land) looking for the Steamboat Arabia. They quickly found the boat buried about half a mile from the modern river’s edge and 45 feet below ground.
The team spent a year and a half gathering the necessary tools for a professional excavation, and began digging in November of 1988. Water from an underground river channel soon interrupted their work but wells were built to divert the water, and the digging continued. They found the first parts of the boat three weeks later. One-hundred-and-thirty-two years after it sank, the Arabia was recovered. The entire excavation process took another sixteen months, uncovering fully-preserved trunks of antiquated trinkets: ink wells, rubber boots, eyeglasses, and spoons all survived the disaster.
The contents of the Steamboat Arabia are today preserved in the Steamboat Arabia Museum in nearby Kansas City. The museum showcases the cargo of the long-forgotten ship, as well as part of the deck. It provides a strange look into a time long past. Almost like visiting the Walmart of yesteryear
Know Before You Go
At E 4th street and Grand Blvd, downtown Kansas City MO.