In 1856, the Arabia steamboat left St. Louis on its way to deliver more than 200 tons of goods and nearly 130 passengers to the Western Frontier. In 1856, the Arabia steamboat left St. Louis on its way to deliver more than 200 tons of goods and nearly 130 passengers to the Western Frontier. The mission, which was to stop in 16 towns along the Missouri River, was routine (if dangerous).
Only a week into the journey, tragedy struck when the ship collided with a submerged walnut tree snag, ripping open the ship’s hull and filling it with water, causing it to sink quickly. The passengers were able to escape the sinking ship, but the cargo was not so fortunate. Let’s fast forward to 1987. Bob Hawley and his sons set out to find Arabia’s wreckage, which had been lost to the river for more than 130 years.
Hawley and his team discovered the ship buried 45 feet beneath a farm field in Kansas City using old maps, newspaper clippings, and modern technology such as a proton magnetometer (essentially a large metal detector). The Missouri River had shifted nearly half a mile since the sinking of Arabia. Excavations on the site began with permission from the farmer who owned the land at the time.
The excavation team removed more than 20,000 gallons of water and recovered the entire boat by 1988, using a 100-ton crane and a series of 65-foot-deep wells. The mud had miraculously preserved nearly all of the cargo, so much of it was still in excellent condition! Almost everything needed for life on the Frontier was found among the recovered cargo.
Carpentry tools, clothing, books, fine china, and even jars of preserved apples, berries, and vegetables are all available. In 1991, the cargo was converted into the Arabia Steamboat Museum (see their website here, and pay them a visit if you’re ever in Kansas City). Check out the photos below to see how well-preserved the cargo was…talk about a slice of life!