The day started out as a cool, rainy morning in Iowa for my family and me. We were returning from an antique equipment auction where we had been told of a museum in Kansas City that housed a large collection of pre-Civil War artifacts.
The rare materials were recovered from an old river steamboat called the “Arabia.” Unearthed in 1988, the boat had originally been loaded with more than 200 tons of supplies bound for territories west. It was late August 1856 when the 171 foot side-wheeler left the docks at Saint Louis and began the slow journey west through the dangerous and unpredictable waters of the Missouri River. Ultimately destined for Sioux City, Iowa, the steamer made a number of scheduled stops along the way, including the intermediate port of Kansas; more modernly known as Kansas City.
After leaving Kansas City, the Arabia continued west, but not for long. Before the cargo could arrive at the next stop, it would be violently attacked. This watercourse was anything but a peaceful, lazy river. In fact, according to museum curator, Greg Hawley, the Missouri in the 1800’s was more dangerous to navigate than a flight to the moon is today. Filled with untold obstructions and floating debris, it was a minefield on a mission for victims. Such was the scene as the Arabia unknowingly approached the sharpened snag of a giant walnut tree anchored just below the water’s surface. Without warning, the waterlogged torpedo ripped open the hull and exploded the cargo holds, claiming literal fortunes as its own. While all passengers – except for an unfortunate mule – were able to make it to shore safely, the Arabia was immediately claimed by the river and for the next 132 years the boat sank deeper and deeper into the clutches of the old river bed. Over time, the river changed course and the 1988 discovery found it a full half mile away from the current river channel and 45 feet below a Kansas cornfield.
Perhaps the best news is still to come. With even more sunken steamboats from the same era yet to be located, it’s quite possible that more vehicles have escaped the passage of time and are simply waiting to be rediscovered. It’s an intriguing thought and who would say it’s impossible with such an amazing find on the Arabia? After all, dreams have a way of fulfilling their destiny, even if it takes a century and a half to get it done.
Check back with us through the coming months as we expect to be posting additional information and photography on this unique discovery. For more details about this incredible find on the Missouri River, visit www.1856.com