Arabia Steamboat Museum
When the mighty Steamboat Arabia sank near Kansas City on September 5, 1856, she carried 200 tons of mystery cargo. Lost for 132 years, its recovery in 1988 led to the discovery of remarkably well-preserved clothes, tools, guns, dishware and more. The museums displays these treasures, along with a recreation of the historic steamboat, displays about river transportation, and the early history of Kansas City.
Backstory and Context
The Arabia traveled the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers before being purchased for $20,000 by Captain John Shaw of St. Charles, Missouri in February of 1855. Her first trip on the Missouri took her to Ft. Pierre, South Dakota with 109 soldiers from Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.
In the spring of 1856 the Arabia was sold to Captain William Terrill and George Boyd, both of St. Louis. During the 1856 season, the Arabia made at least 14 trips on the Missouri River. The poster shown here advertises her last trip, leaving St. Louis on August 30th, bound for “Kansas (present-day Kansas City, Mo), Weston, St Joseph, Council Bluffs and Sioux City” as well as other towns along the way. Then she traveled an additional 700 miles to the Yellowstone River in western North Dakota. The trip took nearly three months to complete.
During the spring and summer runs of the Arabia, this steamboat served many recent converts of the Mormon church who were seeking transportation to the West. During these months, Mormon Pioneer Handcart Companies crossed the Plains with converts from England, France and Scandinavia. River transportation aboard the Arabia made part of the trek much easier and faster for these religious pioneers.
Navigating the Missouri River was a difficult and dangerous business. A variety of perils awaited the steamboat pilot as he carefully guided his craft along the river’s uncertain course. The most treacherous of the many river hazards were fallen trees lying hidden from sight just under the river’s surface. These “snags” crippled and sank hundreds of steamboats, some even on their first trip up the river. Of the estimated 400 steamboats lost to the river, about 300 were “snagged.” The Arabia was one of those victims.
On September 5, 1856, The Arabia's oak hull was pierced by a the trunk of a fallen walnut tree embedded in the mud. The impact was tremendous, catapulting the bow from the water and throwing many of the shaken passengers to the floor. As the Arabia’s timbers gave way, the log was thrust into the heart of the boat. Water poured through the gaping hole, and the Arabia began quickly sinking.
Within minutes, much of the boat and virtually all 200 tons of precious frontier cargo lay at the bottom of the Missouri River. Fortunately for those aboard, the upper cabins of the Arabia remained above water for a time. The frightened passengers and crew nervously awaited the steamer’s single rowboat to ferry them and their precious few recovered belongings to the safety of the riverbank. All aboard were saved except for a solitary, forgotten mule that remained behind, tied to a piece of sawmill equipment on the deck.
The river bottom was soft, and the boat and cargo sank quickly into the mud and silt. The next morning only the smokestacks and the top of the pilothouse remained visible. Even these disappeared in a few days, swept away by the tremendous force of the river.
Notorious for its shifting channel, the Missouri River cut a new path and moved east, leaving the spot where the Arabia sank to no longer be in the river but rather lying deep beneath a Kansas farm field. Rumored to be filled with whiskey and gold when it sank, the Arabia drew the attention of treasure hunters and failed salvage attempts for many years.
Using a metal detector, weathered maps, and old newspaper clippings to guide the search, David Hawley located the wreck in July 1987. Years of erosion and shifting sand left the lost steamer 45 feet underground and a half-mile from the present channel of the Missouri River.