Sunday, February 03, 2013

Arabia Steamboat Museum

... which may be the most unusual museum I have ever seen, not just in KC. The Arabia was a commercial Missouri river two- paddle steamer (its wheels, one restored and running, were 28 feet high, its length 130 feet; despite its topheavy overloaded superstructure it could float in two feet of water when empty, though it was never empty when working). Someone told me to think of it as a floating Wal Mart servicing the frontier. It was laden with a full cargo when it hit a snag and went down very fast in 1856, with only one casualty, a mule now renamed Lawrence; both Lawrence and the snag and the boilers that registered on the high end metal detectors are on display, as well as a selection of goods, some archaic, some modern, that seems impossible. Apparently cotton, and iron that was too close to salt pork rotted-- everything else could be preserved, though some of the big bent timbers needed years of showering with chemical solutions. The result is that you can momentarily immerse yourself in another world.

The whole thing was a private project of the Hawley family, a father and two sons, one of whom died in an accident after the dig, and two friends. They spontaneously decided to dig one of the many sunken boats now buried in the cornfields along the river's banks by the inevitable meanders of flatland rivers. They heard a rumor that the Arabia was in a farmer's field, and confirmed it. Special metal detectors confirmed the presence of the boiler, which does not sound remarkable until you realize that it was 40 feet under ground. They immediately began to excavate using pumps to keep the pit relatively dry, which was necessary as they hit water 10 feet down. Everything they found from rolling pins to mule bones, had to be preserved in some way or other. At first they had perceived of their dig as a treasure hunt, but it became a labor of love; I shudder to think what it must have cost. They got everything out, shut off the pumps, and in two days the water had filled the hole again. They did this so swiftly that the farmer was able to get in another corn crop without a missed season.

The artifacts speak for themselves; a few of my favorites below.

The only book cover I saw was an ornate gilded leather one for the popular epic Ossian, later proved to be a fake:

Unlike the personal hunter's guns above, these state of the art Sharps were being smuggled to abolitionists in Kansas by wealthy patrons. I told Jen they were the Eevil black AR-AK high- tech shooters of their day, which of course they were...

It was a rainy day and we were the only patrons. Mr Hawley himself emerged from the shadows of the museum's theatre to answer our questions. He told us there are still marvels and finds to come; he has the merry manner of a man who has followed his dreams.


Mark Farrell-Churchill said...

This sounds remarkably similar to the exhibit at DeSoto NWR on the Iowa-Nebraska border (it lies on the Iowa side of the Missouri after the river changed course), which contains the stores of the steamboat Bertrand, which hit a snag on the way to Ft. Benton, Montana. I've been meaning to blog about the Bertrand exhibit, and will make an effort to see the Arabia as well. Thanks for the tip!

Matthew MAKAREWICZ said...

A friend had the pleasure of taking the late bluegrass legend John Hartford to tour the Arabia museum. Hartford was a riverboat aficionado, and I believe a licensed riverboat pilot. Anyway, it turns out John knew more about the Arabia and steamboats of that era than the docent. Chuck said he taught her a thing or two.

Matthew in Missouri

Chas Clifton said...

Mark beat me to it: I have visted the museum of the steamboat Bertrand, which is also like walking through an 1860s department store and hardware store. Canned oysters and preserved cherries for the miner who strikes it rich!

Reid Farmer said...

Very cool! I regret not visiting the Arabia museum when our daughter was in school nearby at the University of Saint Mary and we traveled through Kansas City.

An old (and unfortunately late) co-worker of mine at the National Park Service, Jake Hoffman, ran the excavations of the steamboat Bertrand.