Written by Lindell Sconce
Even in the cold Missouri months, Kansas City’s river market offers a wide array of attractions. The main market square is home to a variety of vendors, peddling wares from homemade pies to succulent plants. Surrounding the market are stalls that house tea shops, grocery stands, delis. and more. Together they make for a charming visit, but there’s one venue that’s a travel destination all on its own. A large green building dominates the east end of the square, paneled in glass and touting ornate gold letters that declare, “Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia.”
This museum houses artifacts from a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River over 150 years ago. Far from just dusty old antiques, the Arabia collection strives to bring America’s riverboat era to life. Once inside, the high ceiling makes room for a fully functioning, life-sized model of a steamboat paddlewheel. The device is enormous. It spans a full two stories in height with thick wooden beams radiating out from the center. A jet-black piston powers the wheel as it rotates slowly, sloshing through a pool of water on the floor below. Past this mechanism is a gift shop where tours begin. Tickets are 15 dollars a piece — children and seniors get a discount. The tours run every 30 minutes, moving from the gift shop to the museum.
The guide starts by filling everyone in on a little history. The golden age of steamboats came in the mid 1800s, making the Missouri River a pipeline of goods to the American frontier. However, it was a perilous journey since tree limbs carried by the river often became stuck in shallow areas. The current would strip away branches until the limb was a bare spike that swam just below the surface. On Sept. 5, 1856, the Steamboat Arabia struck one of these snags right outside Kansas City.
All 130 passengers were able to escape but the Arabia sank deep into the river mud before its cargo could be recovered. It remained buried until 1988, when the Hawley family and friends tracked it down and uncovered it.
The tour continues with a crash-course on the Arabia’s impact, the 1988 excavation, and how the museum preserves certain items. The amount of information presented can be a lot to process, especially for younger children. Photographs, tangible artifacts and a 10-minute video, however, should help keep them intrigued. At the end of the video David Hawley, museum director and one of the original excavators, often answers questions and personally welcomes everyone to enjoy the museum’s rich history.
Hawley looks like a man who enjoys his work. He smiles while chatting with visitors and is more than happy to talk about how his family discovered the Arabia and founded this museum. Hawley said he’s met all kinds of individuals: students on field trips, scholars wanting to examine the collection and even army personnel visiting from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When the museum opened, he remembers receiving 200,000 people in the first year, with numbers settling to about 80,000 per year since then. Knowledge of the collection seems to spread by word of mouth, and Hawley said he notices many who stop by do so on recommendation from a friend or family member. As the word spreads, the museum receives guests from farther and farther away.
“When we first opened up, I would say 80 percent of our visitors were local, 20 percent was out of town,” Hawley said. “It’s flipped now: 80 percent are out-of-towners, 20 percent are local.”
Hawley said he continues to search for buried steamboats, conducting research in the summer and excavating in the winter, but still makes time to work at the museum. He’s been asked questions by a variety of folks, but said the best ones usually come from children. He remembers one day he told a group how even food products — pickles, pie fillings, barrels of butter — were kept preserved in the mud.
“And so this little kid, hearing all this stuff, raises his hand in the very back, and he wanted to know if the expiration date on the butter had expired,” Hawley smiled as he said. “It would take a kid to ask that question. Adults would never think of anything nearly as clever.”
Preserved foods can still be seen in the main exhibit hall. Outside the video room, broad wooden boards cover the floor like steamboat decking as visitors approach the central gallery. Behind a pane of glass lies a treasure trove of wares, impressive both in size and variety. The tour guides say the Arabia was like a 19th-century Walmart, carrying all kinds of items meant to restock department stores up the river. Ironstone china sits next to golden gunpowder flasks, and delicate vases line the back wall followed by pots, serving trays and sturdy iron kettles. There are inkwells and whale-oil lamps for writing at night. Clothes pins, irons and thimbles lay ready to be used on 19-century bolts of silk cloth. Guides will mention that this is the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world, and it’s easy to believe.
One of those guides is Lydia Fultz, who has worked at the museum since 2014. Lydia said the museum receives a lot of traffic, though it fluctuates with the season. Some days they see 600 to 700 visitors, while other days receive only a dozen or so. She said field trips stand out in her memory the most since they’re usually fun. In addition to guide-work, Lydia also spent time restoring artifacts. Because of their perishable nature, she explained that many objects must be kept frozen in blocks of ice until restoration staff are ready to preserve them. Even though the museum has been refurbishing items for decades, the process is slow and a whole third of the collection still remains untouched.
“A lot of our preservation processes are quite time consuming. They’re not necessarily high-tech or difficult, but they do take a long time,” Lydia said. “Like a boot or a shoe — from when you thaw it out to when you put it on display is 4-6 months.”
Her favorite artifact was the medicine display, she said. Many of the museum’s items haven’t changed a lot since the mid 1800s, like hardware. Lydia said stylistically, hardware items in the collection are very similar to products found today. The medicine, however, is an entirely different story. She said it’s so far removed from today’s knowledge, with snake oil cures and lancets for bloodletting, that it interests her to see how some areas stayed the same while others have changed a lot.
Past the main collection, the museum curves around a partition that divides the room into two sections. On the far side, display cases give way to diagrams that explore the steamboat era. Grainy photographs on the wall explain America’s westward expansion, and life-size cutouts show what boat passengers probably looked like. There’s a man with his wife and children, dressed in travel-attire. Across from them a farmer leans on a tool next to a boiler-worker who’s suspended in the act of shoveling coal. Their plastic gazes all fall on an old, splintered log sitting between them. A small sign labels the log as the snag that sank the Steamboat Arabia. This piece of driftwood may have disrupted countless journeys, but now it inspires hundreds more as the museum attracts visitors from all over the United States.
One of those far-flung visitors is Leo Mathers, who came into town for the holidays. He grew up in Texas, attends university in Boston and was visiting his girlfriend’s family in Missouri. They decided to take him to the steamboat museum, and Mathers said he enjoyed it a lot more than he expected. Standing by the Arabia’s massive boilers, Mathers said he was astonished at the amount of items they were able to excavate from the dig site. The paddle wheel was his favorite feature — he spent 20 minutes watching it and learning how it works — but since he has a thing for dishware the collection of china pieces came in at a close second, he said. Overall, Mathers said the visit was well worth the 15-dollar ticket and he would recommend it to his friends.
“The river and the steamboats were so central to the city growing, and all this stuff that they brought from the steamboats was the foundation on which these frontier towns were built on,” Mathers said. “So it’s really interesting to see it up close and to really get to see the process of how it all happened. I definitely feel more connected to history by being here.”
His reaction sums up how the treasures of the Steamboat Arabia are surprisingly exciting. One doesn’t expect to be thrilled by century-old hardware, dishes or department store goods but put together, they paint a picture that’s vivid and alive. The level of detail is impressive, and there’s so much information it’s hard to process in one visit. With friendly guides, reasonable prices and an ever-growing collection, the museum can be a fun attraction to return to time and time again.