Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Missouri’s rivers were full of steamboats. The state’s eastern boundary is delineated by the Mississippi River, and the Missouri River cuts right through the center of the state. Steamboats brought people, crops, and consumer goods across long distances much quicker than they could have made it on the crude early roads.
Steamboat pilots, including a young Mark Twain, had to have precise knowledge of the rivers because there were eddies, sandbars, and sawyers (sunken logs) ready to wreck their ship. If he managed to avoid all those dangers, the boiler could still blow up.
In 1856, the side-wheel steamboat Arabia was heading west up the Missouri River. The Arabia was a beauty. It was 171 feet long, could carry 222 tons, and had a reputation for speed, comfort and safety. That didn’t save her, though, and she hit the trunk of a submerged walnut tree. The log tore through the Arabia’s hull and she sank within minutes. Despite the speed of the sinking and the fact that there was only one lifeboat, the crew managed to get all the passengers safely to shore. Within a few days the boat was entirely covered in silt and disappeared, another of the hundreds of casualties on the river.
In 1987, the Hawley family led a salvage crew in search of the Arabia and found her. The river had shifted since then and the boat now lay half a mile from the water’s edge and 45 feet under a farmer’s field. A massive operation began to lower the water level, remove countless tons of earth, and carefully clean off and examine the ship and its contents.
%Gallery-162722%The wet silt had preserved the ship remarkably. The storage rooms were nearly intact, with boxes full of merchandise intended for frontier shops. There were cleaned, cataloged, and preserved and the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, opened to show off the amazing find.
This museum is an amazing snapshot of history. Every possible item imaginable is there: from guns and boots to toys and a complete printing press. There are even jars of preserves. Most of the passengers’ personal belongings sank with the ship and so we have complete outfits and luggage for the hardy travelers seeking a new life in the Old West. Large sections of the boat are also on display, including the paddle wheel and anchor.
Check out the gallery for a small sample of what this incredible museum has to offer.
Another steamboat has surfaced recently. Station WLFI reports that a long drought has lowered the level of the Missouri River enough that the steamboat Montana, sunk in 1884, is now visible at Bridgeton, MO. National Geographic has an interesting article on this steamboat, the largest ever to ply the Missouri, and its ironic end. It sank after running into a railroad bridge. Railroads were what eventually killed the steamboat trade.