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TREASURESOF THE STEAMBOAT ARABIA

My early morning flight from Chicago to Kansas City is ontime but in a holding pattern. The sky is clear and the few extracircles our aircraft makes allows me to see from my window the brown muddy watersof the Missouri River as it cuts through the city creating KansasCity, Missouri to the East, and Kansas City, anises to the West.

A painting of theriverboat Arabia on the Missouri River.

I've always been fascinated by water, or Isuppose I should say by the vessels that travel on it. I'd ratherput my car on a ferry boat and cross a body of it than drivearound, even if it cost a little more, sometimes saving little orno time.

I'm traveling to Kansas City to see the remainsof the steamboat Arabia. A side wheeler that hit a river snag,and sunk September 5, 1856.

The final approach and landing were smooth andwithin the hour I had picked up both my luggage, rental car andwas heading down I-29 to Kansas City and the Arabia SteamboatMuseum.

In the days of the Arabia, steamboat sinkingswere not uncommon. In 1897 historian H.M. Chittendon complied alisting of almost 200 such boats lost on the Missouri Riverbetween St. Louis and Kansas City. All sank between the year 1830and 1895.

What makes the Arabia almost unique is that itis one of only two early riverboats found with its cargo mostlyintact.

Built in 1853 on the banks of the MonongahelaRiver in Brownsville, PA, about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, shewas 171 feet in length and had a width of 29 feet, capable ofcarrying a full 222 tons of cargo. She was a wood burner, usingup to 30 cords each day.

After leaving Brownsville the Arabia traveleddown the Ohio and onto the Mississippi River, than to St. Louiswhere for the next 18 months would ply the waters of both riverscarrying cargo and passengers to many river towns.

In February of 1855 the Arabia was sold to oneCaptain John S. Shaw of St. Charles, Missouri for the sum of$20,000. The following spring the Arabia entered the swiftcurrents of the muddy Missouri for the first time. The river hadthe reputation of being wild and unruly. Locals were heard to sayof her “too thick to drink, too thin to plow”.Many of the steamboats early trips on the Missouri were to carrytroops and government supplies to Ft. Leavenworth, and beyond.

According to the June 7, 1855 issue of theDaily Missouri Democrat:

“The Arabia and the Australia wereready to leave and probably left yesterday evening for distantpoints on the Missouri. The Arabia is loaded with governmentgoods for Fort Pierre and stores, etc. for a trading post of theAmerican Fur Company situated at the mouth of the Yellowstone.The mouth of the Yellowstone, where the Arabia brings up is about700 miles beyond Fort Pierre. Both boats will be gone about twoor three months.”

In the spring of 1856, while waiting for thewinter pack ice to clear the Missouri River so navigation couldbegin, the Arabia was again sold. This time to a Captain WilliamTerrill.

The year 1856 started off poorly for theArabia. In March while heading up river the boat collided with anobstacle and nearly sank, requiring repairs at nearby Portland.Three weeks later she blew a cylinder head and was forced toreturn to St. Louis. Despite these problems the Arabia was ableto make 14 trips between St. Louis and the frontier communitiesbetween March and August of 1856.

“Captain Terrill will leave for allpoints on the Missouri between St. Joseph and Sioux City today at4 o'clock PM. Mr. Boyd is clerk on the Arabia. Passengers willfind everything to their liking on board.” The St. LouisMissouri Republican. August 30, 1856..

Another routine trip for the Arabia had begun.Departing St. Louis the heavily loaded Arabia again headed up theMissouri River. After a short stop at the town of Kansas, (nowKansas City), she again started heading upriver. The Arabia nevermade another port-of-call. Less than one hour above Kansas Cityat Quindaro Bend, the steamboat Arabia meets her fate.

A large undetected walnut tree below the waterlevel ripped through the Arabia's hull smashing crates of cargopacked inside. Within second's thousands of gallons of muddyMissouri River water was rushing inside flooding the boiler deckand cargo was gone, along with over 200 tons of cargo destinedfor frontier merchants. Fortunately no loss of life had occurred.The following eye witness account was given by a Mr. Able D.Kirk:

“We embarked on the boat in St. Louisand had been on the water about 10 days. The boat was heavilyloaded with freight but did not have a large number ofpassengers. One evening when many of the passengers were atsupper the boat struck a snag. We felt the shock and at once theboat started sinking. There was a wild scene on board. The boatwent down till the water came over the deck and the boat keeledover on one side. The chairs and stools were tumbled about andmany of the children nearly fell into the water. Several of themen on board seized the life boat and started for the shore, butthey came back and the women and children were put in the boat.They called for a small man to go with the boat and I was smalland got on board. The river bank at the point were we landed hadbeen carving off and was very steep. I climbed out and pulled thewomen ashore. Horses and wagons came down from Parkville, andtook us to the hotel for that night. Many of the trunks andvalises were taken off the boat and stacked up in the woods nearthe river. That night they were broken open by thieves and allthe valuables were taken out. We were taken on the steamboat,James H. Lucus, and when we went aboard all that could by seen ofthe Arabia was the top of the pilot house. That sank out of sightin a short time.”

From the beginning of time swift-moving bodiesof water like the Missouri River changed course, depth would risethan fall, and the river would again move it's banks to anotherlocation. In the beginning and for years after, the story of thesteamboat Arabia was told and retold by locals in barber shopsand bar rooms, until eventually the boat's exact location becamelost.

In 1987 the four man team of Bob, David andGreg Hawley and Jerry Mackey were searching for adventure andguided by an old river map showing the approximate location ofthe steamship Arabia, set out.

The hunt quickly took them to the farm ofNorman Sortor whose land bordered the Missouri River on theKansas side.

In the early 1860s, Norman's grandfather ElishaSortor purchased the property. From the beginning the story ofthe steamboat Arabia being on the property became part of thefamily's folklore, as its story was told over and over. Norman,in his youth was told of the great ship being buried somewhere onthe property. Would it ever be found?

An agreement was quickly struck between NormanSortor, the Hawley's and Mackey. Soon the attempt to locate andexcavate the Arabia began.

Armed with the latest technology, a protonmagnetometer, David Hawley began searching the Sorter farm. Inonly two hour's the wreck was located, over one-half mile fromthe current river's edge and 45 feet underground!

Eighteen months later, on November 7th 1988,after assembling all needed equipment including a 100-ton crane,the long awaited dig of the riverboat Arabia began.

As with any new venture problems can quicklydevelop. The Arabia lay in an old underground river channel belowthe water level and at the 20 foot level of the dig, water beganflowing in. To extract the water so the dig could continue, 20wells, each about 65 feet deep, were constructed around the hullof the wreck. Each well was made of steel casings and had heavyduty water pumps placed inside. Thousands of feet of steel andplastic pipe were then installed to remove and divert the wateraway from the excavation site. When working at there peak thesepumps would remove as much as 20,000 gallons of water-per-minute,sending it back into the Missouri River, over a half mile away.

With the water problem solved the digging beganin earnest. Finally on November 26th a load of dirt was liftedexposing the boat's wooden beams and paddle wheel. One hundredand thirty two years after it's sinking the steamboat Arabia onceagain saw the light of day.

Several days later on November 30th, the firstof many artifacts would be found. It was a pair of Goodyearrubber shoes, patented in 1849. The crew was set to workthroughout the winter when the water table was at its lowest andon December 5th the first wooden shipping barrel was lifted outof the cargo hold. When the mud-covered lid was removed a singlechina bowl emerged still packed in soft yellow packing straw.Before the day ended almost 200 pieces of elegant, unbrokendishware would be recovered.

And on it went; cases of eyeglasses; ink wells; food bottles; medicines; spoons; bells;wrenches; guns; pocket knives; no two cases seemed to be exactlyalike, all holding remains of the frontier era.

Working in shifts both day andnight the recovery continued for four months until the entirecargo of the Arabia was removed. After removing the cargo heavyequipment hoisted the 25,000 pound boiler, paddle wheelstructures, and finally the stern portion of the boat itself.

On Saturday evening, February 11th1980 the excavation came to an end. The diesel generators andwater pumps were turned off, workers, bulldozer, and cranes movedaway fromthe site. Within hours, ground water returned filling in the nownear empty grave of the Arabia.

As I approached the ArabiaSteamboat Museum in downtown Kansas City my level of excitementand anticipation began to rise. The Arabia was heading to thefrontier gold fields of Montana, surely she would have beencarrying many types of bottles in her cargo: food jars andmedicines without doubt, but what else?

After paying my admission I joinedone of the regular guided tours through the 30,000 square footbuilding. Our guide was excellent and knowledgeable explainingthe history of the Arabia, it's sinking and eventual excavation.Upon entering the main area of the museum I broke away from thegroup to explore on my own. Case after case of artifacts, avirtual treasure chest of the American frontier was on display.

I soon located what I had traveledthis distance to see -- bottles! Food bottles embossed `Well's,Miller & Provost' filled several shelves, many hadoriginal lead labels and contents. Earlier `large size',Dr. Hostetter's Bitters, were in abundance, as were a number ofunembossed `lady's leg' bottles, both having originalcontents. Peppersauce bottles with the desirable `WesternSpice Mills' embossed appeared in several areas, as did asprinkling of various pontiled cologne and scent bottles. Onecase exhibited several rows of medicine bottles. One caseexhibited several rows of medicine bottles: `Mexican MustangLiniment', `McGuire Druggist, St. Louis', and `Nerveand Bone Liniment', all still in there original contents.Ink bottles, still in there original packing box, and early casegins were also to be found. To me the most rewarding display ofall was a portion of one wall holding row after row of earlyScroll flasks! Approximately 100 were on display, all being pintand quart size. They were displayed in alternating rows of deepaquamarine and medium yellow green and all sparkled like the daythey were blown!

Before leaving I had theopportunity to speak with one of the men who discovered and wasinvolved in the excavation of the Arabia. Since the artifacts ondisplay made up only a small portion of the cargo, I had a fewquestion to ask. Bob Hawley was glad to listen and quick tosupply answers. “Was there any half-pint scroll flask inthe cargo,” I asked? “No”, Bobreplied, “we have a number of cases of these flasks noton display, but none are in the half pint size”.“Colors, any others besides the aqua and yellow green ondisplay?” Again the reply was somewhat disappointing. “No,all the flasks found were in these two colors.” Beforeparting I ask Bob Hawley if it was all worth it. The expense, thetime and the uncertainty that when found would any of the cargostill be on the Arabia.

“When we started out wewere mostly treasure hunters looking for exactly that, treasure;things that we could sell. After we realized what we haddiscovered, a certain understanding for exactly what we found setin. The largest single discovery of artifacts from the time ofthe early frontier, a time capsule that all should be able tosee, and learn from. So we sold none of it, instead creating thiswonderful museum housing the artifacts for all to enjoy.”

I know I did.

The Arabian Steamboat Museum is located at: 400Grand Ave, Kansas City, MO. Hours are Monday - Saturday 10 AM to6 PM and Sunday noon to 5 PM, admission is $6.00 for adults,$3.75 for children 4 -12, children under 3 are free. For moreinformation: PH: (816) 471-4030

OTHERTHINGS TO DO.

Take in a bottleshow? We did!

After departing the ArabiaSteamboat Museum I drove over to the Governor's Building toattend the Kansas City Bottle Collectors Annual Show & Sale.This was a new show, only in its second year, but Show ChairmanJames Maxwell has high hopes.

"This is an ideallocation, the Kansas City Flea Market takes up aboutthree-fourths of the building with our bottle show having therest. This way you get a good mix of dealers going back and forthbetween the two. And it's all in the same building."

Indeed the flea market was hugewith over 350 booths. I strolled the isles looking for things ofinterest to me, but found little. A few bottles showed up hereand their but most were of the common variety, or over priced. Idid better buying some sports memorabilia, including a bookshowing the early Kansas City Athletics baseball team from themid-1950's.

The bottle show was small by somestandards but is growing."We had about 35 tables lastyear but are up to 51 this year," said Jim Maxwell. "We'vealready had a number of repeat dealers and new dealers ask aboutnext year. On the strength of this we are planning on 75tables."


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