There's something fascinating about shipwrecks. To this day, certain wrecks continue to pique the interest of divers, snorkelers, and those who visit their replicas in museums. Shipwrecks that happen on the open sea are almost to have been expected in the early days of sailing; however, wrecks that happen on rivers and lakes open up a new world of intrigue.
Perhaps it's that without the threat of ocean waves or mythical Kraken-like creatures, these ships are deemed 'safer' than seabound vessels. Or, maybe it's just the idea that they've sunk so close to the shore that makes them so interesting. Whatever the case might be, it's the same with Kansas City's most famous shipwreck. It's one that was lost for 132 years before finally being found, and has since turned into one of the city's most visited attractions.
The Story Of The Arabia, Kansas City's Long-Lost Steamboat Shipwreck
The mid to late 19th century was a booming time in regard to transportation. Steamboats were well underway as a means of transportation in larger cities, such as Kansas City, and the Arabia was one of them. This steamboat served double duty as it was able to transport passengers up and down the Missouri River, and it could hold up to 222 tons of cargo. This made it an important vessel as far as both tourism and commerce were concerned, and its construction in 1853 was thought to be the beginning of something great.
The ship was built in Brownsville, Pennsylvania before it was brought to Kansas City and had the main job of carrying things such as tools for work on the frontier, U.S. mail, and merchandise for local storefronts. While the ship itself was solid and well-built, it was the route it took that presented the dangers it would soon face.
The Missouri River was no friendly waterway to the ships that sailed it and provided plenty of obstacles - many in the form of downed trees - to ship captains. The problem with sailing down lakes and rivers is that the debris that lurks just beneath the surface can snag the bottom of a ship, as there are no strong currents to carry them away. This is the reason that hundreds of steamboats, in particular, were sunk between 1820 and 1870.
One night, while carrying 200 tons of cargo and 150 passengers and crew, the Arabia hit some down trees that tore up the bottom of the steamboat. It sunk in a matter of only minutes but, thankfully, all passengers and crew were able to make it safely off the sinking vessel. However, all 200 tons of its cargo were lost and would remain that way for more than a century.
The Rediscovery Of The Arabia & The Treasures That Were Found
While the last anyone had ever seen of the Arabia was on September 5th, 1856, that would soon change in the late 1980s. The owner of a local A/C and furnace repair company, Bob Hawley, worked with his sons David and Greg, to find the lost ship.
It was determined that the ship itself was actually located a half-mile away from its last known position, roughly 45 feet below ground due to more than a century of erosion and sand-shifting. After partnering with Jerry Mackey, a long-time friend and customer, as well as David Lutrell, who owned a local construction business, the crew began the search for Arabia's cargo.
What Was Found On The Arabia?
What was discovered would have surprised anyone who was on the dig site. Not only was the Arabia discovered in the place where the mouth of the Missouri River channel once was, but it was found with a slew of pre-Civil War artifacts. After four and a half months of searching and hard work, it was determined that this was the largest discovery of pre-Civil War-era artifacts ever found in the world.
From preserved food (some of which, like the pickles, were still edible according to the museum) to beautifully ornate glassware, jewelry, clothing, and weaponry, it was all put on display at the soon-to-be Arabia Steamboat Museum.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum
Those interested in seeing the artifacts for themselves can visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum, which resides in Kansas City's River Market. The antiques on display are more than just historic - they offer a glimpse into the past like no other. Visitors will see full displays of artifacts that detail was life was like on the frontier of Kansas City during its earliest industrial days. They'll be able to pour over detailed artisan items that were created during a time when factories and worldwide manufacturers did not yet exist. Throughout these displays, time seems to almost stop in the year 1856 as visitors are surrounded by clothing, personal worn items, pre-wartime weapons, and housewares of the mid-19th century.
Visiting The Arabia Steamboat Museum
- Museum Hours: Monday - Saturday 10 AM - 5 PM; Sunday 12 PM - 5 PM
- Admission: Children (3 and under) – Free | Children (ages 4 – 14) – $5.50 | Adults – $14.50 | Seniors (60 and older) – $13.50
A visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum is a must for those fascinated by shipwrecks, but also those fascinated by the idea of early-established America. The museum showcases a unique view of Midwestern life during the 19th century, and there's a reason it's become one of the most popular Kansas City tourist attractions.