Arabia Steamboat Museum

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Arabia Steamboat Museum
Arabia Logo5.png
Established 13 November 1991 (1991-11-13)
Location River Market, Kansas City, Missouri, United States
Coordinates 34°15′N 50°59′W / 34.25°N 50.98°W / 34.25; -50.98Coordinates: 34°15′N 50°59′W / 34.25°N 50.98°W / 34.25; -50.98
Type History museum
Collections Cargo of steamboat that sank in 1856
Collection size 200 tons
Public transit access MAX, City Market Stop, KCATA
Nearest parking On site (no charge)

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a museum that houses artifacts salvaged from the Arabia, a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River in 1856. The 30,000-square-foot museum opened on November 13, 1991 in the Kansas City River Market in Kansas City, Missouri, United States.[1] The partners of River Salvage Inc., who excavated the Steamboat Arabia and opened the museum, claim to have the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.[2]

Artifacts on Display at Arabia Steamboat Museum


Museum visitors receive a 20-minute guided tour explaining the boat's sinking and recovery. This is followed by a 13-minute film called "Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia," shown in the museum's theater. Next, patrons view the museum's artifacts on display, as well as an open preservation lab where staff members work on cleaning the many artifacts in storage. Finally, visitors walk a 171-foot-long full-scale reproduction of the Arabia's main deck, where they can see archival footage of the excavation process and more information about the Arabia's history, along with the original boilers, engine, and anchor of the Arabia, and the skeleton of a mule fatality. Also on display are the 6-ton stern section of the boat and a reconstructed paddle wheel. The museum additionally offers a gift shop, snack bar, and meeting space.[3]

Stern of Steamboat Arabia, which sank in 1856


The Steamboat Arabia hit a tree snag and sank on the Missouri River on September 5, 1856. The 130 passengers survived, but an estimated 220 tons of cargo went down with the boat. Shortly thereafter, the Missouri River changed course, and the boat was buried underground. The cargo, destined for 16 towns on the frontier, was buried under a cornfield in Wyandotte County, Kansas for 152 years until it was discovered by River Salvage Inc.[4] In 1988, a group of self-proclaimed treasure hunters located the Arabia and began excavations. David Hawley, Greg Hawley, and Bob Hawley owned a refrigeration repair business. They partnered with Jerry Mackey, owner of Hi-Boy restaurants in Independence, Missouri, and David Lutrell from the construction industry, along with other family and friends, to form River Salvage Inc.[5] With the permission of the land owner, they dug between November 1988 and February 1989. Although their original goal was to sell their discoveries, the historical import of the finding quickly became apparent, and they started to plan a museum.[6] Today, the Arabia Steamboat Museum is still owned and operated by the Hawley family, who are present at the museum most days, often greeting visitors and answering questions.[7]


The museum's collection consists of hundreds of thousands of items intended for daily life on the frontier: including more than 4,000 boots and shoes, 247 hats, 235 ax heads, 29 jars of pickles, 328 pocket knives, and one children's doll. All of the items are from 1856 or earlier; most of them were brand-new merchandise heading to general stores on the frontier.[8] The Wall Street Journal called it "an Aladdin's cave of objects from the year 1856." [9]

1856 Spoons at Arabia Steamboat Museum


After the excavation of the Arabia, the next challenge for the partners of River Salvage Inc. was learning to clean and preserve the artifacts. During the digging process, organic artifacts had been stabilized in blocks of ice: both in Jerry Mackey's restaurant freezers and freezers installed in storage units in underground caves near the Missouri River. In the three months following the dig, larger wooden artifacts, including the stern section and paddle wheel of the steamboat and two prefabricated houses found on-board, were submerged in an 80-by-20-foot pool specially dug by the team. Greg Hawley partnered with conservators working on the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth, England, and the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, along with the Historical Resource Conservation Branch of the Canadian Parks Service, to learn freshwater preservation techniques. The preservation process is still in progress today at the Arabia Steamboat Museum. Organic materials like wood and leather are submerged in a food preservative called polyethylene glycol (PEG) and then freeze-dried. Preservationists gently remove oxidized material from metal artifacts using metal tools and special erasers. Bottled and jarred foods and beverages are injected with nitrogen, an inert gas. Shoes, boots, and garments must be re-stitched since their cotton thread dissolved under water.[10] It has been estimated that the preservation of the collection will be complete by 2022.[11]

Carefully Re-Stitching a Shoe in the Arabia Steamboat Museum's Preservation Lab

Recent Additions[edit]

The Arabia Steamboat Museum's newest exhibition debuted on November 22, 2013. This display consists of the engine of the Missouri Packett, the first steamboat to sink on the Missouri River in 1820. The Hawleys excavated the Packett's engine in 1987, just outside the small town of Arrow Rock, Missouri. The Packett did not yield many other artifacts, yet still inspired the Hawleys to continue their quest for sunken steamboats. David Hawley told The Kansas City Star, "“An engine like this has never been on display.” He believes it to be the oldest extant maritime steam engine in the United States.[12] After closing for ceiling repairs in January 2013, the Arabia was awarded "Best Remodel" by local weekly publication The Pitch. The museum had never before been closed in its 20-year history, but was able to re-open with the displays cleaned, re-organized, and expanded.[13]


In 2014 the Arabia Steamboat conducted its first major loan of artifacts to another museum. Approximately 2,000 objects from the Arabia's collection went on display at the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 31, 2014. Because the Steamboat Arabia was built in Pittsburgh and Brownsville, Pennsylvania in 1853, the temporary exhibition is called “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.” In addition to the artifacts, visitors can view information about the preservation process and a replica of the mule that represents the only fatality of the Arabia's sinking. This exhibition runs through January 4, 2015.[14]


The Arabia Steamboat Museum has consistently received favorable press. The Kansas City Star named the attraction "Rookie of the Year" in 1992 after receiving over 20,000 visitors in two months.[15] More than 20 years later, the museum continues to draw tens of thousands of visitors a year and is a favorite destination for local school field trips.[16] US News & World Report ranks it number one on its list of "Best Things To Do in Kansas City."[17]


  1. ^ Heaster, Jerry. "Arabia Museum Launched," The Kansas City Star. 13 November 1991.
  2. ^ "Arabia Steamboat Museum" Retrieved on 14 June 2014.
  3. ^ Ibid.
  4. ^ Hawley, David (1995). Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia, p. 16-18. Paddle Wheel Publishing, Kansas City. ISBN 0966464303.
  5. ^ Bordewich, Fergus M. "Pay Dirt", Smithsonian Magazine. December 2006. Retrieved on 12 June 2014.
  6. ^ "Kansas City Journal; A Shared Dream: Treasures From a Sunken Boat", New York Times. 3 January 1992. Retrieved on 14 June 2014.
  7. ^ "Arabia Steamboat Museum." Retrieved on 15 June 2014.
  8. ^ Hawley, Greg (2005). Treasure in a Cornfield, p. 197-217. Paddle Wheel Publishing, Kansas City. ISBN 0965761258.
  9. ^ Cole, Bruce. "The Sunken Treasures of the Arabia", The Wall Street Journal. 4 September 2013. Retrieved on 12 June 2014.
  10. ^ Hawley, Greg. Treasure in a Cornfield, p. 175-186.
  11. ^ Ibid., p. 197.
  12. ^ Burnes, Brian. "Arabia Steamboat Museum receives a 194-year-old steam engine", The Kansas City Star. 22 November 2013. Retrieved on 11 June 2014.
  13. ^ "Best of KC 2013", The Pitch. 31 October 2013. Retrieved on 14 June 2014.
  14. ^ Burnes, Brian and Donna McGuire. "Artifacts from the steamboat Arabia are on loan to a Pittsburgh museum", The Kansas City Star. 31 May 2014. Retrieved on 11 June 2014.
  15. ^ Heaster, Jerry. "Arabia is rookie of the year", The Kansas City Star. 15 January 1992.
  16. ^ Cole, Bruce. "The Sunken Treasures of the Arabia",
  17. ^ "Things To Do in Kansas City: Steamboat Arabia Museum", US News & World Report: Travel. Retrieved on 15 June 2014.

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