Monday, June 21, 2010

Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City

The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City houses items found from the wreck of the Steamboat Arabia that went down in the Missouri River in 1856. It's an amazingly well-preserved time capsule.

Our FCC group visited recently and I'm already ready for a return visit.

In the late 1980s, five men decided they would look for the wreck of the Arabia. They were not historians. There were repair people, restaurant owners and construction people. Their original intent was to sell what they salvaged to pay for the operation. But once they saw the items being uncovered they realized it should be shared. So, they created a museum instead.

It was no easy feat to retreive this. Their website gives a more detailed story and I won't presume to tell it, but it's fascinating the lengths they went to, to recover the Arabia and let her tell her story.

Three previous attempts had been made to retrieve materials from the Arabia, including 400 barrels of Kentucky Whiskey rumored to be on board. But none were successful until this band of adventurers.

The Arabia held everything you might need for life in a frontier town. There were building materials, fabric and sewing notions, printing items and boots. It's the most comprehensive assembly of such goods you'll find. You really get an idea of what life was like in 1856.

It's also gives you a sense of the growth of products in that time. Between 1850 and 1870, registered US patents increased 10 fold, going from 9,000 to nearly 100,000. The Arabia seemed to have one of everything that was around in 1856.

The group removed a portion of the boat, and about 2000 pieces of material from it. Of those, about one-third were broken, but the amount of intact items from china to buttons to boots is astonishing.

Something of note, one of the cases is covered with glass recovered from the wreck so you can see the wavy glass. Amazing.

The Arabia was one of 289 steamboats catalogued in 1897 as being wrecked in the Missouri River, from St. Louis to Pierre, South Dakota.

When you visit the museum, part of your tour is a short video. After the video, David Hawley, who was one of the treasure hunters, came in and spoke to our group. Talk about getting some extra bang for your buck, getting to ask questions of one of the men who was there from the beginning was a real treat. I asked him for a photo afterwards and he generously agreed.

You also get a peek at conservators working on items in the lab. When we were there they were working on shoes. At the lab you also get to sniff some of the perfume they've had reproduced from what was found on the boat. You know I love perfume but I resisted the urge to bring some home. It was tough.

The lab is a great stop on your visit.

Near the end of your visit you can see the boilers, the anchor, and the "snag," the fallen tree that brought the Arabia down.

I highly recommend a visit. I hope Kansas City realizes what they have in this museum. It's really wonderful.

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