The Steamboat Arabia, which sank in the Missouri River north of Kansas City in 1856, is one of the coolest museums ever for people who dream of finding buried treasure.
An estimated 300 steamboats sank on the Missouri River between St. Louis and Pierre, South Dakota in the mid-1800s, and most remain lost. The Steamboat Arabia sank after its hull was pierced by a submerged tree near Parkville. It sank quickly, but gently in the mud along the riverbank.
Greg and David Hawley grew up on the Missouri River, loving the stories of sunken treasures. As adults, armed with maps and metal detectors, their hikes along the riverbanks turned serious.
Finding the Steamboat Arabia
In 1988, they located the Steamboat Arabia, buried under 45 feet of mud. Changes in the Missouri River’s channel over the years resulted in the boat’s location in a cornfield about a half mile from the current river.
On a wicked cold, wet night in November 1988 the first crates were opened, revealing more than with 200 pieces of fine china completely intact. Other treasures include tons of hardware for building frontier homes, such as door knobs and hinges, nails, glass windows, carpenters tools and more.
Items for frontier stores included 50 bolts of fabric, 10,000 brass straight pins, French buttons and beads. There were 300 hats, 958 pairs of shoes, rolling pins, guns, scissors, axes and razors, and on and on and on – all perfectly preserved as the Arabia sunk gently into the cold, dark Missouri River.
The food items, still edible according to the Hawleys who tasted a jar of pickles, included cherry pie filling, oysters and sardines.
As the items were lifted from the muddy cornfield, they were transported to the limestone caves of the Kansas City where the dark, coolness kept them preserved until the treasure hunters could figure out what to do with their find.
The result is the Steamboat Arabia Museum located in Kansas City’s River Market area. The best part of the visit is watching and talking with employees as they bring forward more items and clean them up. They say there’s enough stuff still in storage to keep them busy until at least 2020.
Greg Hawley was killed in an automobile crash in 2009, but David and the rest of the family are now leading experts on organic preservation and the Arabia Steamboat Museum is considered the most comprehensive collection of pre-Civil War artifacts on display in the United States.