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. Most remain lost to time and the murky waters of the Missouri River.
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.
That was a common trauma of riverboats at that time. The steam in the steamboats came from heat generated by burning wood. The wood came from that cut alongside the river banks, often just below the water’s level. Boats coming along later rarely had any idea a jagged tree stump was just below the water’s edge.
Today, you can stroll along the Missouri River’s edge at English Landing Park in Parkville. About a mile in along the river trail is a marker identifying the approximate spot passengers came ashore. Spend some time in historic Parkville. Much of it looks as it did the night the Arabia Steamboat passengers came ashore.
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Finding the Steamboat Arabia
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.
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.
In the winter of 1988/89, my husband and I participated in a ritual that many parents of newborns understand: We placed our fussy, will-not-go-to-sleep child in his car seat and drove around in the middle of the night until he fell asleep. As we drove, we watched the lights in the field, across the river from our neighborhood, as the Hawley family worked around the clock for nearly four months to unearth the steamboat’s cargo.
On a wicked cold, wet night in November 1988, they opened the first crates, 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.
Building a Steamboat Museum
As crates were lifted from the muddy cornfield, they were transported to the limestone caves of Kansas City. There, the dark, cool environment kept them preserved until the treasure hunters could figure out what to do with their find.
Sadly, Greg Hawley was killed in an automobile crash in 2009. David and the rest of the family are now considered to be leading experts on organic preservation. The Arabia Steamboat Museum is considered the most comprehensive collection of pre-Civil War artifacts on display in the U.S.