Arabia Steamboat Museum

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Arabia Steamboat Museum
Established November 13, 1991 (1991-11-13)
Location River Market, Kansas City, Missouri, United States
Coordinates 39°06′35″N 94°34′53″W / 39.109778°N 94.581485°W / 39.109778; -94.581485Coordinates: 39°06′35″N 94°34′53″W / 39.109778°N 94.581485°W / 39.109778; -94.581485
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 history museum in Kansas City, Missouri housing artifacts salvaged from the Arabia, a steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in 1856. The 30,000-square-foot museum opened on November 13, 1991 in the Kansas City River Market.[1] The partners of River Salvage Inc., who excavated the 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


Visitors to the museum receive a 20-minute guided tour explaining its sinking and recovery. This is followed by a 13-minute film called Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia, shown in the theater. Next, they view the artifacts on display, as well as an open preservation lab where staff members work on cleaning the many artifacts in storage. Finally, they 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 its history, along with the original boilers, engine, anchor, and the skeleton of a mule. Also on display are the 6-ton stern and a reconstructed paddle wheel. The museum additionally offers a gift shop, snack bar, and meeting space.[3]

Stern of the Arabia


1856 spoons at Arabia Steamboat Museum

The museum's collection consists of hundreds of thousands of items intended for daily life on the frontier including more than 4,000 pairs of boots and shoes, 247 hats, 235 ax heads, 29 jars of pickles, 328 pocket knives, and one children's doll. All are from 1856 or earlier; most of them were brand-new merchandise heading to general stores on the frontier.[4] The Wall Street Journal called it "an Aladdin's cave of objects from the year 1856."[5]


The museum debuted a new exhibit on November 22, 2013. It consists of the engine of the Missouri Packet, the first steamboat to sink in the Missouri River in 1820. The Hawleys excavated its engine in 1987, just outside the small town of Arrow Rock, Missouri. It 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.[6]

After closing for ceiling repairs in January 2013, the museum was awarded "Best Remodel" by local weekly publication The Pitch. It had never before been closed in its 20-year history, but was able to reopen with the displays cleaned, reorganized, and expanded.[7]


In 2014, the museum conducted its first major loan of artifacts to another one. Approximately 2,000 objects from its collection went on display at the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 31, 2014. Because the Arabia was built in Pittsburgh and Brownsville, Pennsylvania in 1853, the temporary exhibition was called “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.” In addition to the artifacts, Heinz curators displayed information about the preservation process and a replica of the mule that represents the only fatality of the sinking. This exhibition ran through January 4, 2015.[8]


The Arabia hit a tree snag and sank in the Missouri River on September 5, 1856. All 130 passengers survived, but an estimated 220 tons of cargo went down with it. Shortly thereafter, the river changed course, and the Arabia 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.[9] In 1988, a group of self-proclaimed treasure hunters located it and began excavations. David, Greg, 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.[10] 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 importance of the finding quickly became apparent, and they started to plan a museum.[11] Today, it is still owned and operated by the Hawley family, who are present there most days, often greeting visitors and answering questions.[12]


Preservationist restitching a shoe in the Arabia Steamboat Museum's preservation lab

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, paddle wheel, and two prefabricated houses found on board, were submerged in an 80-by-20-foot pool specially dug by the team.[13] 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.[14] The preservation process is still in progress today at the 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 restitched since their cotton thread dissolved under water.[15] It has been estimated that the preservation of the collection will be completed in 2022.[16]


The museum has consistently received favorable press. The Kansas City Star named it "Rookie of the Year" in 1992 after having received over 20,000 visitors in two months.[17] As of 2013, it continued to draw more than 80,000 visitors per year.[18] It is described by the Wall Street Journal as "fascinating" museum with an "enthralling" story.[18] US News & World Report ranks it number one on its list of "Best Things To Do in Kansas City."[19]


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

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