The Steamboat Arabia Museum In Kansas City, Missouri


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.

Video: Old West Ghost Town Of Bodie, California


Here’s a double dose of American nostalgia for you. Back in the 1950s, Maxwell House coffee had an “American Scene” series of TV shorts. This episode takes us to the ghost town of Bodie, California.

Gold was discovered in Bodie in 1859 and soon it became a boomtown with more than a dozen large mines and countless smaller claims. Some $80 million in gold was extracted from the surrounding hills, a huge amount for the 19th century.

Bodie is a popular destination these days and is lovingly preserved by the California State Parks. Back when Maxwell House filmed there, it was still not quite a ghost town. It had a population of nine, and one rugged miner was still looking for a big strike. The few diehards hoped that Bodie would become a boomtown once again. It was not to be.

So sit back and enjoy this show from the early days of television, talking about the early days of the Old West.

Tombstone, Arizona: The Toughest Town Of The Wild West


Of all the Wild West towns in America, Tombstone, Arizona, stands out as legendary.

Tombstone got its name from a mining claim filed in 1877. Prospector Ed Schieffelin had been told by local soldiers that the southern Arizona hills were crawling with Apaches, scorpions and rattlesnakes and that he’d only find his tombstone there, so he thumbed his nose at their pessimism by naming his claim Tombstone. Schieffelin discovered the area was rich in silver and the dusty hillside soon became a boom town. Within two years Tombstone had a population approaching 1000.

One early resident, Clara Spalding Brown, wrote that Tombstone was, “. . .an embryo city of canvas, frame and adobe, scattered over a slope. . .The only attractive places visible are the liquor and gambling saloons, which are everywhere present and are carpeted and comfortably furnished. . .The camp is one of the dirtiest places in the world. . .The sod lies loose upon the surface, and is whirled into the air every day by a wind which almost amounts to a gale; it makes the eyes smart like the cinders from an engine; it penetrates into the houses, and covers everything with dust. . .The mercury gallivants around in the nineties, with altogether too high-minded ideas. . .we cannot obtain desirable food for hot weather; fresh vegetables are scarce, and the few fruits in the markets require a very large purse. . .The camp is considered a remarkably quiet one – only one murder since my arrival.”

That low murder rate was about to go up. Scattered in nearby ranches and villages was a loose-knit group of cattle rustlers dubbed “the Cowboys.” They’d cross the border into Mexico, steal cattle, and sell them cheaply in Tombstone. In most of the West, “cowboy” simply meant a drover from Texas. Now in Southern Arizona the name took on a pejorative meaning, distinct from the respectable “rangemen” or “cattlemen.”

%Gallery-159476%The cowboys engaged in worse crimes too, including stagecoach robberies. They numbered perhaps 200 but were never a rigid organization. They only came into Tombstone to sell their stolen beef and whoop it up in the saloons. The locals generally tolerated them. Their stolen cattle lowered the price of beef and they spent lots of money.

Into this Wild West town strode the Earp brothers. Virgil was appointed U.S. Deputy Marshal. Wyatt rode shotgun for Wells Fargo stagecoaches and moonlighted as a gambler. Morgan was also a shotgun messenger and sometimes a special deputy. One-armed Jim tended bar. A fifth brother, Warren, drifted in and out of town.

The Earps were not impressed with the Cowboys. Virgil said, “As soon as they are in funds they ride into town, drink, gamble, and fight. They spend their money as free as water in saloons, dancehouses, or faro banks, and this is one reason they have so many friends in town. All that large class of degraded characters who gather the crumbs of such carouses stand ready to assist them out of any trouble or into any paying rascality.”

The battle lines were soon drawn, with complex political machinations further dividing the boomtown. It all came to a head on October 26, 1881, with the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral. Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp, joined by Wyatt’s friend Doc Holliday, faced off against five Cowboys, killing three.

This only worsened the feud. Cowboys shot and crippled Virgil, and soon killed Morgan. Wyatt Earp launched into what’s known as his Vendetta Ride, hunting down and killing Cowboys. Eventually he left Arizona, but his legend remained.

Today Tombstone is a huge tourist draw and an easy day trip from Tucson. The famous gunfight, which actually happened just outside the corral, is reenacted every day, as you can see in this video. There’s also a cheesy animatronic recreation.

Much of the town’s historic buildings have been restored and you can see the Bird Cage Theatre and its 120+ bullet holes left by rowdy patrons, the Boothill graveyard, and many other fun sights. You need a whole day to see it all. Check out the gallery for some glimpses of a place where the West really was wild.

Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Barbed Wire Museums Take On A Prickly Subject

barbed wire
I’ve always loved museums on obscure subjects because they teach you how overlooked objects can have a big influence. Barbed wire is one of those objects.

While various inventors started experimenting with barbed wire in the 1850s, the founder of barbed wire is generally considered to be Joseph Glidden, whose 1873 design soon stretched across the American West. Before then, it was nearly impossible to enclose the vast rangelands of the West. There were constant fights over whose animals were on whose land. With the advent of barbed wire, land became enclosed, and the fights turned to passage rights and boundary disputes.

It’s often said barbed wire tamed the Old West, and while that’s true it also led to its demise. The West became more organized; freedom of movement suffered, and bigger and bigger ranches began to enclose huge swaths of land. Barbed wire was a boon to some and a curse to others. Many called it “the Devil’s rope” or “the Devil’s hatband.”

There are three major museums devoted to this humble but important invention. The Joseph F. Glidden Homestead & Historical Center in DeKalb, Illinois, is devoted to the inventor of barbed wire and his carefully restored home, barn and blacksmith shop. The museum has a blacksmith who gives live demonstrations of his traditional craft including, of course, wire making.

%Gallery-155001%The Devil’s Rope Museum on Route 66 in McLean, Texas, has a huge collection of barbed wire. The original design inspired countless variants and supposed improvements. Also, thefts of barbed wire led manufacturers to design specific wires for large companies and ranches. Hundreds of these variants are on display, as well as art created from barbed wire and a room devoted to the history of Route 66.

Over in LaCrosse, Kansas, there’s the Kansas Barbed Wire Museum, which has more than 2,000 varieties of wire as well as wire-making tools and displays of barbed wire being used in peace and at war. It’s the headquarters of the Antique Barbed Wire Society, one of several societies of collectors and historians. Yes, there are collectors for everything, and with so many variants of wire and so much history for each one, the hobby has attracted some devoted followers.

Lots of historical societies and pioneer museums have small displays of barbed wire, so the next time you pass one on the highway, stop by and check it out. Just remember: look, but don’t touch!

[Image courtesy Coyote Grafix via flickr]