Arabia, the steamship in a cornfield...By Larry
This morning, Monday October 9, was the day we had scheduled to head for downtown Kansas City to visit the Arabia museum. All six of the Northern Trekies squeezed into Old Blue for the half hour trip. After only getting lost once, we decided to get out the trusty GPS and it led us the rest of the way. Interesting contrast between our guidance system and what was in store for us at the museum.
The Arabia was a flat bottomed 2 side paddle wheeled steamship which cruised on the Ohio and Mississippi before its life ended on the Missouri river. It was born in 1853 and came to an undignified death on Sept. 5, 1856 after hitting a walnut tree beneath the surface and sinking almost immediately about 10 miles north of Kansas City. The passengers were all able to swim or row safely from the upper deck of the boat which remained above water. The ship was carrying over 200 tons of supplies for many upstream stores and merchants as well as passengers and luggage on their way west. It was also rumored that there were over 400 barrels of Kentucky bourbon on board. The only known casualty was a mule whose skeleton was recovered decades later.
The ship was impossible to recover due to the river running beneath her and washing away the sand, causing it to sink out of sight in just a few days. One engine was salvaged before she disappeared. None of the Bourbon was ever found, as it was unclear if it was stored on deck and washed away or went down with the ship.
Two subsequent salvage attempts were made in 1877, and again in 1897, but only a case of felt hats were retrieved. The 1897 attempt was abandoned after the probe into the Arabia discovered no bourbon. Guess we know what was important to the early settlers.
Enter the Hawley family, a father and two sons with a desire to be treasure hunters. They had tried finding treasure in old gold mines and other places with no success. One day they heard about the Arabia and the story intrigued them. After studying about the steamboat wrecks and discovering 6 that could possible contain valuables, it was decided to try to excavate the Arabia which was now residing in a farm field in Kansas. After gaining permission from the current owner, they set out to try to locate the steamer which had gone down so many years before.
Work proceeded with a magnetometer, which senses the presence of large metal objects. The boilers and one engine of the ship were still intact, plus the current land owner had a good idea of where the ship was. Once located by magnetometer, core drills were used to provide an outline and depth. The core samples outlined a ship that was 171 feet long and 54 feet wide.
On Sunday, November 13, 1988 ground was broken over the Arabia. The family that was attempting to excavate the Arabia had purchased used equipment to dig, lift, and pump water from the site. They had estimated $ 200,000 as the total cost of the project, which was soon surpassed as more water than expected had to be pumped out and back into the river. The large pumps were powered by diesel generators at a cost that eventually reached $700 per day just for the fuel. Installing more pumps and generators to cope with the continuing rising water became almost a daily occurrence.
On November 30, 1988, a backhoe struck the larboard paddle wheel of the Arabia which sunk 132 years prior. This was the beginning of 3 months of excavating the cargo that was on board the Arabia. The details of which can be found in many of the books that have been written about the salvage operation, and are far too extensive to describe in this article. On February 9, 1989, the last piece was removed from the Arabia (A section of the stern) and two days later the pumps were shut off and water slowly reclaimed the ship. The massive amounts of dirt that had been removed were eventually pushed over the wreck and the farmers' field was returned to normal in time for the next planting.
What has been left out of this article is the enormous amount of artifacts that were removed, and the work involved of finding storage places and the means necessary to keep the artifacts intact after being removed from the water. Restoration of the thousands of items continues daily and will not be completed until approximately 2020. It is indeed, a time capsule to be enjoyed by everyone who wishes to go to the museum. The cost of the recovery and restoration finished at $ 1,600,000 leaving all involved heavily mortgaged and indebted to various investors and banks.
The family had originally planned on selling artifacts to pay for the excavating and other costs, but as the sheer number of items began to surface, decided that it must be preserved as a collection for all to see. This required a place for a museum and all of the associated work of displaying as well as perfecting freeze drying and preservation techniques that they knew nothing about. As an example, a large hole was dug and lined with a rubber liner so that all of the wood items found aboard could be kept wet until such time as they could be stabilized. Leather items were freeze dried until they could be processed. Rust removed from metal items such as nails, chains, saws, locks and countless other things.
The recovered boilers, pumps and one engine driving a restored paddle wheel using most of the original wood is on display in a full sized replica of the deck of the Arabia.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum opened to the public on November 13, 1991 to a large approving crowd. The day we were there, two of the family members were working in the gift shop and another was in the theatre answering our questions. If you happen to be in Kansas City, be sure and allow time to visit the museum. It is indeed a trip back in time that will completely astound and fascinate one and all.
The Arabia Museum can be accessed by internet at WWW.1856.com.