Sunken Steamboats in Cornfields: The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City

I have to admit that before visiting this fascinating museum I had never contemplated the possibility that under dry ground, down many feet, were boats. Maybe it is just that I am a 20th Century egoist, but when I look about I imagine that what I see is roughly the same as it was hundreds of years ago, sans the modern buildings and such.  I had never thought about a river full of steamboats that regularly met their demise by sinking in the Missouri River, and then years later, having the course of the river change.

Well luckily, there are more creative people than me in the world and some of those adventurers get wild hairs to do things like look for sunken steamships in corn fields.

Steamboat Arabia MuseumThat is essentially the back story to the Steamboat Arabia museum located in Kansas City.  Two brothers, with backgrounds in the air conditioning industry, wanted an adventure so they decided to look for the infamous Steamboat Arabia that sunk in 1856.  It was loaded to the brim with goods to be sold all up and down the Missouri River, but met its demise by running into a huge snag than sunk the boat in under five minutes.  All the lives, save one donkey, were saved, but when the goods were to be retrieved the next day all they could find of the Steamboat Arabia was a few inches of the tallest smokestack.  The entire Steamboat was sucked into the vortex of Missouri River mud.  And there is stayed until the two brothers were able to locate the probable place of the sunken ship, secure funding, and start digging.  Initially their motivation was money.  But when they did what no one else could, actually find the Steamship Arabia, they were so moved by the vast contents in pristine condition that they decided to keep the collection intact and preserve it for all to enjoy in a museum.  The story of the brothers is just as fascinating as the contents they unearthed: the largest and most pristine collection of pre-Civil War artifacts ever discovered.

Pickles discovered at Steamboat Arabia dig

Brothers uncovering bottled food on the Steamship Arabia dig site.

Not only was this dig important archeologically, the brothers had to push the envelope of research into the preservation of fresh water-logged items.  Items are still being restored and recovered through a very painstaking and cumbersome process.

Steamboat Arabia Lab at the Museum

In the Museum you can watch the work continue on the vast collection unearthed on the Steamboat Arabia.

We absolutely loved this museum.  It has a very nice sized collection, but is not so big that it can’t be done in an afternoon.  Additionally, the displays are absolutely gorgeous, and the written material interesting.  My 10 year old daughter and 6 year old nephew also seemed to really enjoy their time here.

You start out your visit to the museum with a tour.  The tour was fantastic.  I hate when I go on a tour and I feel like the docent is just reciting memorized lines and chokes when you ask questions.  Our tour guide was fantastic: she was very knowledgeable and easily fielded questions.  For instance, my nephew asked if the donkey was still alive after being buried with the Steamboat Arabia for 150 years, and she easily fielded this question.  Ha!  She actually did a great job; she took his question seriously and explained that the poor donkey was now a lot like dinosaur bones.  The tour takes about twenty minutes and culminates in a short film about the excavation process.  Then you are left to peruse the collection at your leisure, but the tour guide stayed close by to answer any questions.

My pictures do not do the beauty of this collection justice.  Nearly everything is displayed behind glass with very gentle light so as to not damage the collection, which makes for a complex picture taking environment.

Dishes of the Steamboat Arabia

Dishes of the Steamboat Arabia

Dishes of the Steamboat Arabia

I love patterns like this.

Tools and metals of the Steamboat Arabia

Awesome display of tools and hardware.  It is fascinating thinking of all the people who were waiting on these supplies but never got them. 

The collection includes some truly fascinating items, like full bottles of perfume and perfectly preserved pie fillings and pickles.  Apparently the brothers tried most of the food and found it to still be perfectly edible.  There is a small vial of perfume that anyone is welcome to sample.

Glassware from the Steamboat Arabia

Exquisite glassware from the Steamboat Arabia

In addition to the collection of artifacts, there is a great deal about the history of steamboats and the culture of the mid 19th century, including mention of the varying functions of Steamboats.  They were used to cart goods but also pioneers heading westward.  Interestingly, they post some statistics of accidents, which were quite frequent, but also note that Steamboats carrying certain religious groups never succumbed to accidents.

When they dug far enough, they actually uncovered the snag that brought down this massive boat.

The snag that sunk the Steamboat ArabiaI heartily recommend a visit to this museum next time you are in Kansas City.  We found it incredibly interesting.  It was great to get such insight into the culture, life, and history of the people and places along the Missouri River.  It is an important bit of United States history.




7 thoughts on “Sunken Steamboats in Cornfields: The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City

  1. We have been there a couple of times. Dave LOVES all old things. Anything that is old actually. So he was naturally drawn to it. I wasn’t so sure I would enjoy it, but surprisingly I loved it. I loved it both times actually. The displays are very artistic and it really is a cool story of a steamboat found in a cornfield.

    • I am not very good at science so I have already forgotten all the chemicals and processes they had to use. But apparently, if you just being an item up from being completely waterlogged such as wood or leather the cell structure has fundamentally changed to the point that when the water evaporates the item just crushes, kind of implodes. So they had to soak items in chemicals so as to stabilize the cells. It was all so fascinating!

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