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Monday, September 9, 2019

The Steamboat Arabia

163 years ago on September 5, the Steamboat Arabia struck a submerged tree trunk and sank.

From the St. Louis Republican newspaper, September 9, 1856:  
"The officers of the LIghtning Line packet Cataract inform us of the sinking of the steamer Arabia in the Missouri River, one mile below Parkville [Missouri]. She went down in fifteen feet of water. The accident occurred on Friday evening at 8 o'clock. The Arabia was on her way to Council Bluffs and Omaha City with a good trip of freight and passengers. It is said the boat will be a total loss - some of the freight may be saved in a damaged condition. The Cataract went alongside the Arabia and took off some of the cabin furniture, and what freight was on the boiler deck, and put it off at Parkville. The Arabia was owned by Captain Terrell, her commander, and Mr. Boyd, clerk. She had been running several years and was probably worth $10,000. We presume she was insured, but have not learned to what amount." 

The Arabia was a typical western steamboat. A twin side-wheel steamer, she was built long and flat to carry maximum cargo. Measuring 171 feet long, with three decks and a wheelhouse above the water line, she plied the waters of the mighty Missouri River, pushing upstream at more than 5 miles per hour.

The 200 tons of supplies she carried were bound for general stores and pioneer settlements to the north and west.

On August 30, she left St. Louis headed for Sioux City, Iowa, by way of Kansas (present-day Kansas City, MO), Weston (MO), St. Joseph (MO), and Council Bluffs (IA).  The Missouri River was wide and shallow and her rushing muddy waters hid dangerous snags—tree trunks that had fallen into the water when the river undercut their roots. Going full steam upriver against the current the Arabia struck the trunk of a large submerged walnut tree that smashed her hull open. She sank fast, until only the wheelhouse was visible, and that quickly broke up in the current.

All the 130 passengers and crew got off safely, but the cargo was buried in sand and mud at the bottom of the Missouri. Over the years, the river changed course with the floods and dry times, layering the site of the wreck under successive years of dirt. When the Arabia was finally located in 1986, she lay in a farmer’s corn field half a mile from the current river’s course and under 45 feet of dirt—and below the water table.

It took 4 months and twenty (20) irrigation wells pumping out up to 20,000 gallons of water per minute to get to the Arabia. A team of family and friends brought up boxes, barrels and crates of frontier merchandise, both necessities and available luxuries, items meant for General Stores all along the river: castor oil, needles, nutmegs, windowpanes, brass and silver locks and keys, eyeglasses, syrup bottles, rubber overshoes and wedding bands; jars of pickles that were still edible (yes, one of the team tried one); French perfume that still held it’s scent thanks to the ambergris that was a main ingredient; carpenter’s tools; a Frozen Charlotte figurine; buttons and scissors; even over one million Venetian glass beads meant as trade goods.

Today, in Kansas City, Missouri, there is a unique museum, built to house the Arabia and the artifacts that have been recovered. Set as a cornerstone for the River Market—a gathering of vendors selling fruits, vegetables, seeds, hand-me-downs, bbq and some rather fine coffee—the Arabia Steamboat Museum offers a wonderful glimpse into life on the frontier in the middle of the 19th century.

The museum was built specifically to house this collection and it's still a work in progress. Though there are thousands of items already cleaned and displayed, the lab runs almost daily, cleaning, preserving and cataloging the amazing number of artifacts. The latest estimate is another fifteen years of work await the lab techs on the Arabia’s cargo. And last year they found another steamboat buried in another farmer’s field.

You can watch as a boot is coated with preservative so it won’t dry out after a century under water. You can dab on a bit of the French perfume that their scientists recreated from the bottles found among the cargo (minus the ambergris, thank goodness).

Much of my River's Bend series came from my visit to the Steamboat Arabia Museum. If you’re ever in Kansas City, I highly recommend this museum. I know we’ll be returning soon—there was just too much to see in one visit.



  1. I've heard about this museum, but I didn't know they'd recreated the perfume, or that the preservation was so interactive. I always think that smelling the things our ancestors did is such a tangible connection to the past. Thanks for this great post. I will be adding this museum to my list.

  2. How amazing that the Arabia was discovered years after it sank in a farmer's field. Wow. With all that cargo on board I can see where it was so exciting to find it. I can just imagine how that discovery must have just been so amazing like finding something frozen in time. I wonder what that French perfume smelled like.
    Get article, Tracy. I wish you all the best with Wanted: The Sheriff, No Less Than Forever.

  3. It is now on my bucket list. I'd already left the mid-west when this was found, or I'd have been there earlier. It's just hard for me to leave the mountains. (Sigh) Doris

  4. Tracy, this was so very interesting and hard to believe they ever found it...and to salvage it. WOW! And now for people today to enjoy. Awesome. Where there's a will there's a way and never underestimate the power of man takes meaning here. Looking forward to another great read. Love this series. Congratulations and I know this will will be a great success.