A look at a Kansas City museum of pre-civil war artifacts recovered from Steamboat Arabia, which sunk to the bottom of the Missouri River in 1856.


You won’t be catching a ride on this steamboat.  It sank to the bottom of the Missouri River on September 5, 1856, on the way from Kansas City to Parkville, Missouri.  That was only the first leg of the trip, but ended up being the last bit of any trip for the 171-foot long hauler of over 200 tons of new merchandise including elegant European dishware, jewelry, guns, tools, food products and clothing items.  The Arabia was one of many boats that served as a lifeline to the frontier, transporting tons of supplies westward to settlements along the Missouri River.  Her fate was sealed when her hull was pierced by a submerged tree.

Life on riverboats in those days could be precarious and many of Arabia’s sister steamboats ended up on river bottoms when they failed to avoid the dangers nature provided by means of erosion.  Mark Twain’s “Life on the Mississippi” relates more of the perils faced by these transporters of trade goods along river routes during the early settlement of our country.

Arabia remained buried for 132 years.  The Missouri River just north of Kansas City had a tendency to shift course due to heavy rains that allowed flooding to quickly change the river’s trajectory. In 1987, Bob Hawley and his sons, Greg and David, decided to find this sunken treasure.  When the sun came up the morning after her final journey, only the double smokestacks could be seen above the water.  The river wasn’t so deep, but the vessel had sunk deep into the mud, making her recovery next to impossible at that time.  The Hawley family knew more than a little about the stories of Arabia’s final voyage, so they decided to add to their family fortune by finding the treasures that would undoubtedly still be sitting on her decks, preserved in thick mud. 

Using old maps and a proton magnetometer, Bob Hawley led his sons, along with Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell on an adventure that eventually produced a time capsule of remarkably preserved frontier supplies that is now the largest collection of pre-civil war items in the U.S.

No human lives were lost when Arabia sank.  Wagons and horses and every available method along the banks of the river rescued all of the passengers aboard the steamboat.  Sadly, a lone mule was left on board.  Conflicting stories indicated that either the mule was too stubborn to move, or that it was tied up and not able to free itself from the sinking boat.  The mule was cleverly named Lawrence of Arabia.

The Hawley family, after discovering the value of the treasures preserved in thick mud aboard the sunken steamboat decided that the treasures belonged not to them, but to all people so that many could get a glimpse of life in the days when steamboats played such a vital part in the settlement of our great nation.  Their decision was to put all of the recovered treasures on display, located at 400 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri.  The treasure hunting adventurers first managed to delineate the outline of the steamboat using the proton magnetometer.  The excavation took place not on the river bottom, but on farmland that had been purchased by Elisha Sortor in the 1860s.  The river had shifted so much that Arabia was buried 45 feet deep in this Kansas field.  The property owners gave permission for the excavation, and not one season of planting was forfeited for this massive excavation.

Bob Hawley comes every day he can to the museum to fill in some of the details of his family’s find.  His family also financed the construction and display of the artifacts that were discovered.  On days that he cannot be present to greet those who attend the museum, one of the other family members takes his place. 

The museum web site is www.1856.com.  Arrangements are available for wheelchair bound individuals and additional special arrangements can be made by calling (816) 471-4030.  The museum is closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and daily hours are posted on their web site.

A guide leads the first part of the tour, which is followed by a fourteen minute film.  Following that, visitors can stroll through the exhibits at their leisure.  This is a remarkable collection of goods that offer an authentic look at life in the mid-nineteenth century.  Not everything on board Arabia was saved.  Cotton fabrics were all destroyed, but silk fabrics were preserved. 

There are still more treasures being prepared for the exhibition.  About two-thirds of the cargo is presently on display.  They estimate that in another 20 years the entire collection will be displayed.   This is a most worthwhile experience for young and old.  Some say it’s the King Tut’s Tomb of the Missouri River.  Others call it modern day treasure hunting at its best.  Your whole family will enjoy this rare experience.  You can get a taste of life on a steamboat without the risk of being inadvertently sunk by an errant log.