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Exhibit of Sunken Ship's Treasures Offers Window Into Frontier Life


Although most treasure hunters scour the ocean's depths for shipwrecks, a resourceful group of Missourians found their treasure 45 feet under a Kansas cornfield.

It was the wreck of the steamboat Arabia, fully loaded with 200 tons of cargo when it sank Sept. 5, 1856, in the Missouri River. The sifting silt of the river built up around the wreck, entombing ship and cargo in a well-packed giant mud pie and eventually changing the course of the river.

Although the loss of the steamboat certainly wasn't a tragedy of the magnitude of the Titanic or Lusitania, the finds provide an incredible window on life in the wilderness. They now fill the Treasures of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in downtown Kansas City, Mo.

Because the Arabia sank while fully loaded with necessities and niceties for frontier settlers, the museum's founders likened the Arabia to a "floating Wal-Mart" during the country's golden age of river travel. They moved the "stock" to a specially constructed building next to the bustling City Market.

A visit to the museum is like walking onto a page from Mark Twain's "Old Times on the Mississippi." You can almost hear the cry, "Steamboat a-comin!" and envision a sleepy town coming to life the way the famed author described.

A detailed picture of life on the prairie is painted by cargo as small as marbles and seashells and as large as wagon wheels and cast iron stoves; as basic as clothespins and as fancy as gold-rimmed glasses; as essential as huge kegs of nails, door knobs, locks, keys and tools for homesteading and medicines to keep the home builders healthy; as interesting as oysters, sardines, butter, pickles, cheese and pie cherries and coffee, whiskey and cognac to wash it all down.

Americans who settled the frontier weren't isolated from the rest of the world, thanks to steamers calling at river towns.

International cargo on the Arabia when it sank included handguns and rifles from Belgium; coffee beans from Brazil; bolts of silk from China; dishes, locks, keys, pocketknives and almonds from England; perfume; porcelain buttons, pins, needles and writing pens from France; gin from Holland; glass Indian trade beads from Italy; tobacco boxes, cigars and coffee beans from South America; pencils from Switzerland, and nutmeg from the West Indies.

The medium-sized steamboat Arabia, 171 feet long and 29 feet wide and built in Brownsville, Pa., plied the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers before making its final trip on the Missouri. The day it sank, the boat was 10 days into a journey that would also take it to Omaha City and Logan, Neb., and Council Bluffs and Sioux City, Iowa.

When the steamboat was snagged by a stump midstream in the Missouri, just outside Kansas City, it sank quickly. Although only one life was lost--that of a mule tethered on deck--passengers didn't have the time to save all their personal belongings, let alone unload the cargo destined for pioneering frontier families.

Liquor, Textiles

When the boat sank, it was rumored to be carrying some 400 barrels of the finest Kentucky bourbon along with enough jewelry, guns and gold to attract earlier treasure hunters who failed.

Although the bourbon barrels were empty and only 26 cents was found, treasure hunter Bob Hawley, from nearby Independence, says no one was disappointed with the cache.

During four months of digging, Hawley, his family, business partners and friends would find some fine jewelry, champagne, fur coats, more than 4,000 pairs of leather boots and shoes, women's sweaters, wooden matches, assorted inkwells, 65 bolts of fabric and 150 leather hides. First to surface during digging that lasted from Nov. 7, 1988, to Feb. 11, 1989, was a patented Goodyear rubber shoe.

"Every day was like Christmas," Hawley said.

The discovery of the first barrel of pristine white English china, trimmed with bands of gold, changed the treasure hunters' course. "We'd originally planned to salvage the wreck and sell the goods to anyone who would buy them, but after seeing the dishes, something came over us. We realized we just couldn't break up the collection. It needed to be in a museum," Hawley said.

Lessons in Preservation

Mud-wrestling the artifacts to the surface was only the beginning. Even today, 11 years later, the museum's staff still is working to permanently preserve artifacts. A single exhibit, a wooden rolling pin that splintered and twisted after three days in the air, shows what can happen without proper preservation.

"We discovered there was plenty of information on saltwater preservation, thanks to the focus on oceangoing shipwrecks. But we were in largely undiscovered territory when it came to information on freshwater preservation," said Hawley, who first contacted the Smithsonian for information and was referred to the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ontario for information on saving the cargo.

David Hawley, one of Bob's sons, described the initial steps taken to protect finds when they were unearthed in the cornfield.

"Wooden artifacts were washed and placed back under water in large livestock watering tanks. These galvanized storage tanks were situated underground in a huge limestone cave, thus taking advantage of the absolute darkness, constant humidity and cool temperatures.

"Leather goods were cleaned with water and frozen in blocks of ice. Textiles were triple-wrapped in plastic sacks and frozen to prevent mildewing until they could be thoroughly cleaned and dried. Iron was stored in a dry area. Ceramics were air-dried and gently packed away. Bottled food items and liquors were quickly stored in a large, commercial walk-in cooler."

Only about half of the cargo has been completely cleaned and preserved. That means visitors can expect the collections in the Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia Museum to keep growing for many more years.

For more information, call (816) 471-1856 or visit

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