Kansas City – The Steamboat Arabia

steamboat-arabia-01 We just recently returned from a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, and we’re sharing some of the things we experienced there. We saw two museums – the World War I Museum, which was Mark’s favorite, and The treasures of the Steamboat Arabia, which was mine. steamboat-arabia-02The story of the Arabia takes place against the backdrop of manifest destiny and the rush to the West. In 1856, just before the civil war, the states were evenly divided, north and south, an agreement that had held the country together in an uneasy alliance. States were opened up one in the south and one in the north, together, so as not to shatter this pact. When the US government broke this alliance by opening up both Kansas and Nebraska at the same time, they agreed to let the states choose their own alliance based on who settled there, and the race was on. steamboat-arabia-08The Steamboat Arabia set off down the Missouri River in early September, 1856, loaded down with supplies to open ten general stores in new townships. The Missouri River banks had been heavily logged to provide enough wood to power the steamships, and the resulting stumps fell into the fiver as the banks eroded, floating downriver and eventually sinking and creating upstream facing snags, making the downstream passage for boats very dangerous. steamboat-arabia-14The Steamboat Arabia hit one of these snags and sank. Its sinking was slow enough that everyone aboard escaped alive except for one mule who was tied to the ship. The ship eventually reached the bottom of the river and sunk into the silt there, with almost all of its cargo. Flash forward to the 1980’s, when a representative of an air conditioning company was talking with a client who had a map of the estimated locations of sunken steamships. The man went home to his family and said “we could find one of these.” They did tons of research, and finally thought they had located one of the ships, in a field about a mile and a half from the current banks of the Missouri River. The family contacted the farmer, who said he would allow them to search, but thought they would come up empty, as others had before them. steamboat-arabia-03They used a powerful metal detector that could “see” far underground. And they got a hit. And another. And another. Sinking rods down into the soil like a real-life version game of Battleship, they outlined what lay under the soil. A steamship. steamboat-arabia-04The family waited until winter when the soil would be harder, and then started to dig. The boat lay below the level of the water table, so six huge pumps were needed to keep the dig above water. The family had planned to sell off the treasures, if found, to make a mint and presumably retire early. But when they found and opened the first barrel and pulled out a beautiful piece of undamaged fine china, they realized it would be a crime to split up this collection. steamboat-arabia-06They had one more barrier to surmount. The farmer who had permitted them to dig on his land was due 15% of their profits. They approached him and he surprised them. He agreed that it should be kept together, and instead of 15%, asked only for 15 items of his own choosing. And so the museum was born. The family used their cold storage facilities to keep the artifacts safe until they could figure out the best way to restore them. steamboat-arabia-05One more challenge – they cut off the rear section of the boat, but if it was allowed to dry, the wood would crumble into splinters. So they kept it soaked for a year and a half until they discovered a technique that would fill the wood with a substance – I want to say polyurethane? – that would push the water out and hold the wood together. That took another two years of daily sprays. steamboat-arabia-10The museum is a wonder. It has opened a window into a period of time from which we have few relics in good condition. The chill and the water preserved the treasures so well that one of the guys who dug up the boat ate one of the pickles – from 1856 – and said it tasted as fresh as if it had just been bottled. What boggles the mind about this museum is the sheer quantity of the goods. They have tens or hundreds of EVERYTHING, and almost all of it looks like it was made yesterday. More photos below. It’s truly an amazing experience – if you are in KC, make time to go see this little time capsule of American history.

Missouri Gay Travel Resources

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