When the mighty Steamboat Arabia sank near Kansas City on September 5, 1856, it carried 200 tons of mystery cargo intended for general stores along the frontier down to the bottom of the Missouri River.
The steamboat was making a routine, slow excursion when it ran into a submerged walnut tree hidden at the bottom of the river. Branches punctured the hull, and within a day the entire boat was sunk. Many attempts to salvage the boat and its cargo were made, but the river’s current was strong enough that it completely covered the vessel, smokestacks and all, within a few days. The Arabia was abandoned at the bottom of the river.
For the next century and a half, the ship remained a popular piece of local lore, especially for the Sotor family who owned the property on which the wreck was sunk. In 1987, Bob Hawley and his two sons used old maps and a metal detector to find the ship, which they eventually located beneath a layer of mud and silt. The Hawleys and a handful of family friends, a massive crane, and 20 irrigation pumps began pumping water out of the ditch. Excavation took roughly one year, but as soon as they reached the sunken hull they began uncovering treasure.
They found remarkably preserved pioneer clothing, guns, tools, and more. Entire crates of china were perfectly preserved, the straw they were packed in still yellow and dry. There was food which, though probably not appetizing, was still edible, including 29 jars of pickles. The excavators even uncovered the skeleton of the shipwreck’s only casualty: a mule which had been tied to the deck at the time of sinking.
Today, all of the Arabia’s cargo is on display at the Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia museum. A re-creation of the boat itself transports visitors back in time. This is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts, and it provides illuminating insight into the material needs of American pioneers.
Know Before You Go
Cost of entry is $15.