Kansas City, MO: Steamboat Arabia Museum

Last week I went to a conference in Kansas City, Missouri. The conference was pretty good but sometimes I need to get away from really large groups of people for a while -- and go take a walk or be by myself. Before heading to KC I did some research about what I might like to see there if I had a chance. I've never actually been to KC besides driving through (Eric and I once drove to Los Angeles from Indiana and we stopped in Independence, but not KC) and had no idea what was even available to me.

I found the Steamboat Arabia Museum listed as being a great attraction and, well, it's something to do with boats, lost treasure, and finding lost treasure, so I had to go check it out. It was about a mile north of the convention center where the conference was held and took me about 20 minutes of city walking to get there.

Upon entering the building where the museum is, you're greeted with a life size turning paddle wheel. You can see this part even if you don't want to go into the museum (like if you're in the River Walk area and just want to pop in for a minute).

The wheel is cool. I have always wanted to take a trip on a steamboat, mostly for the wheels, but have yet to do so.

The entrance to the museum is in the interior of the building, in the museum's gift shop. 

I entered the shop just as the next tour group was about to take off, so I quickly paid the entrance fee (not exactly cheap, but I felt it was worth it, especially since it was the only tourist attraction I'd be able to see during my trip) and joined the group. Two other people were on the tour, but I saw several more people wandering around the museum.

Our tour guide was awesome. It was apparent that she knew pretty much everything about the Arabia and its excavation. She also had a great presentation style, which (as a former tour guide and theater kid) I appreciate.

So what is the big deal with the Arabia? Well, she hit a snag and sunk in 1856 in the Missouri River near KC loaded with over 200 tons of brand new merchandise -- including 400 barrels of Kentucky's best bourbon -- headed out West to the frontier. And she sunk so quickly that virtually nothing except the people (all of them!) was able to get off board before she was gone underwater.

During the years that followed, some people tried to find her, mostly to get the bourbon. But it was expensive and a lot of work to get a 171 ft steamboat like the Arabia up out of the Missouri River. Then, in the 1980s, a local KC family and some of their friends heard about the Arabia and decided to dig her up. The men involved each had a special skill set to bring to the table (excavation, refrigeration, etc) and they decided to go for it.

After doing extensive research, they located the Arabia in a cornfield near the river (rivers move), found her exact location, and dug 45 feet down. The hole was bigger than a football field. They had to install several huge water pumps, running constantly, to keep the hole dry.

And when they found her, they preserved her. Even more research went into preserving the boat and its contents (remember this was before the Internet as we know it...it's 1988).  This whole piece was literally showered with a special preservative to keep the wood from shrinking in the air. It sounded like a fascinating process and our guide told us all about it.

But besides bringing up the ship, the men found those 200 tons of brand new merchandise -- buried treasure. The ship had sunk so quickly that almost everything on board had been completely preserved. The fabric was still wearable, including the silk. There were hundreds of pairs of shoes that we could still wear today. Even the jarred pickles were still good (they tried them!).

It is the biggest and best preserved haul of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

I would have been freaking out about such a find. I was kind of feeling it in the museum, too, even though I hadn't been the one to find any of this stuff. One of my main goals from childhood - and okay still now - was to find some kind of journal/diary/artifact of some kind from a long time ago. This kind of thing would have been a dream.

The artifacts are set up general-store style, which was an awesome display idea. I think the tour guide told us they have cleaned and preserved about 20% of the haul so far -- and they'll be cleaning and preserving the rest of it for dozens of years to come.

What they have on display is awesome. Here are a ton of pictures:

The perfume smelled pretty good. This is a replica of one of the actual perfumes from the ship.

One of the coolest parts of the museum is that you can see someone actually working on preserving artifacts.

This lady was working on preserving shoes. She has to keep them wet (like they were for over 130 years) so the material won't disintegrate or set funny. Then she stitches them back together. The rubber held up underwater, but the cotton stitching didn't, so the museum is restoring all of these hundreds and hundreds of shoes. Awesome. Once she's done with that, they go in the deep freezer (machine above) to very carefully dry out so they can be displayed.

This is the actual snag that sunk the Arabia. It was found with the boat when she was dug up. The Missouri River was well known for being hazardous, especially from these snags (thanks to logging along the river), and we were told there are over 400 other ships sunk in the river around KC.

This was another great part of the museum! The engine was brought up and you can push a button and watch it "work" - the pistons move.

One of the best parts about the visit was that one of the men who actually dug up the Arabia was there the same day I was. He even came by our tour group (all three of us) to visit after we watched the movie section of the tour. It felt like a celebrity entered the room, and he was very nice and talked a bit more about the dig.

If you are ever in KC and like steamboats, history, or old stuff, I would definitely recommend this museum. I only had a couple of hours and blew through it, but I could have spend half the day there at least.

Kansas City, MO: Steamboat Arabia Museum Kansas City, MO: Steamboat Arabia Museum Reviewed by Maria on 2:37:00 PM Rating: 5


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