My early morning flight from Chicago to Kansas City is on time but in a holding pattern. The sky is clear and the few extra circles our aircraft makes allows me to see from my window the brown muddy waters of the Missouri River as it cuts through the city creating Kansas City, Missouri to the East, and Kansas City, anises to the West.

A painting of the riverboat Arabia on the Missouri River.

I've always been fascinated by water, or I suppose I should say by the vessels that travel on it. I'd rather put my car on a ferry boat and cross a body of it than drive around, even if it cost a little more, sometimes saving little or no time.

I'm traveling to Kansas City to see the remains of the steamboat Arabia. A side wheeler that hit a river snag, and sunk September 5, 1856.

The final approach and landing were smooth and within the hour I had picked up both my luggage, rental car and was heading down I-29 to Kansas City and the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

In the days of the Arabia, steamboat sinkings were not uncommon. In 1897 historian H.M. Chittendon complied a listing of almost 200 such boats lost on the Missouri River between St. Louis and Kansas City. All sank between the year 1830 and 1895.

What makes the Arabia almost unique is that it is one of only two early riverboats found with its cargo mostly intact.

Built in 1853 on the banks of the Monongahela River in Brownsville, PA, about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, she was 171 feet in length and had a width of 29 feet, capable of carrying a full 222 tons of cargo. She was a wood burner, using up to 30 cords each day.

After leaving Brownsville the Arabia traveled down the Ohio and onto the Mississippi River, than to St. Louis where for the next 18 months would ply the waters of both rivers carrying cargo and passengers to many river towns.

In February of 1855 the Arabia was sold to one Captain John S. Shaw of St. Charles, Missouri for the sum of $20,000. The following spring the Arabia entered the swift currents of the muddy Missouri for the first time. The river had the reputation of being wild and unruly. Locals were heard to say of her “too thick to drink, too thin to plow”. Many of the steamboats early trips on the Missouri were to carry troops and government supplies to Ft. Leavenworth, and beyond.

According to the June 7, 1855 issue of the Daily Missouri Democrat:

“The Arabia and the Australia were ready to leave and probably left yesterday evening for distant points on the Missouri. The Arabia is loaded with government goods for Fort Pierre and stores, etc. for a trading post of the American Fur Company situated at the mouth of the Yellowstone. The mouth of the Yellowstone, where the Arabia brings up is about 700 miles beyond Fort Pierre. Both boats will be gone about two or three months.”

In the spring of 1856, while waiting for the winter pack ice to clear the Missouri River so navigation could begin, the Arabia was again sold. This time to a Captain William Terrill.

The year 1856 started off poorly for the Arabia. In March while heading up river the boat collided with an obstacle and nearly sank, requiring repairs at nearby Portland. Three weeks later she blew a cylinder head and was forced to return to St. Louis. Despite these problems the Arabia was able to make 14 trips between St. Louis and the frontier communities between March and August of 1856.

“Captain Terrill will leave for all points on the Missouri between St. Joseph and Sioux City today at 4 o'clock PM. Mr. Boyd is clerk on the Arabia. Passengers will find everything to their liking on board.” The St. Louis Missouri Republican. August 30, 1856..

Another routine trip for the Arabia had begun. Departing St. Louis the heavily loaded Arabia again headed up the Missouri River. After a short stop at the town of Kansas, (now Kansas City), she again started heading upriver. The Arabia never made another port-of-call. Less than one hour above Kansas City at Quindaro Bend, the steamboat Arabia meets her fate.

A large undetected walnut tree below the water level ripped through the Arabia's hull smashing crates of cargo packed inside. Within second's thousands of gallons of muddy Missouri River water was rushing inside flooding the boiler deck and cargo was gone, along with over 200 tons of cargo destined for frontier merchants. Fortunately no loss of life had occurred. The following eye witness account was given by a Mr. Able D. Kirk:

“We embarked on the boat in St. Louis and had been on the water about 10 days. The boat was heavily loaded with freight but did not have a large number of passengers. One evening when many of the passengers were at supper the boat struck a snag. We felt the shock and at once the boat started sinking. There was a wild scene on board. The boat went down till the water came over the deck and the boat keeled over on one side. The chairs and stools were tumbled about and many of the children nearly fell into the water. Several of the men on board seized the life boat and started for the shore, but they came back and the women and children were put in the boat. They called for a small man to go with the boat and I was small and got on board. The river bank at the point were we landed had been carving off and was very steep. I climbed out and pulled the women ashore. Horses and wagons came down from Parkville, and took us to the hotel for that night. Many of the trunks and valises were taken off the boat and stacked up in the woods near the river. That night they were broken open by thieves and all the valuables were taken out. We were taken on the steamboat, James H. Lucus, and when we went aboard all that could by seen of the Arabia was the top of the pilot house. That sank out of sight in a short time.”

From the beginning of time swift-moving bodies of water like the Missouri River changed course, depth would rise than fall, and the river would again move it's banks to another location. In the beginning and for years after, the story of the steamboat Arabia was told and retold by locals in barber shops and bar rooms, until eventually the boat's exact location became lost.

In 1987 the four man team of Bob, David and Greg Hawley and Jerry Mackey were searching for adventure and guided by an old river map showing the approximate location of the steamship Arabia, set out.

The hunt quickly took them to the farm of Norman Sortor whose land bordered the Missouri River on the Kansas side.

In the early 1860s, Norman's grandfather Elisha Sortor purchased the property. From the beginning the story of the steamboat Arabia being on the property became part of the family's folklore, as its story was told over and over. Norman, in his youth was told of the great ship being buried somewhere on the property. Would it ever be found?

An agreement was quickly struck between Norman Sortor, the Hawley's and Mackey. Soon the attempt to locate and excavate the Arabia began.

Armed with the latest technology, a proton magnetometer, David Hawley began searching the Sorter farm. In only two hour's the wreck was located, over one-half mile from the current river's edge and 45 feet underground!

Eighteen months later, on November 7th 1988, after assembling all needed equipment including a 100-ton crane, the long awaited dig of the riverboat Arabia began.

As with any new venture problems can quickly develop. The Arabia lay in an old underground river channel below the water level and at the 20 foot level of the dig, water began flowing in. To extract the water so the dig could continue, 20 wells, each about 65 feet deep, were constructed around the hull of the wreck. Each well was made of steel casings and had heavy duty water pumps placed inside. Thousands of feet of steel and plastic pipe were then installed to remove and divert the water away from the excavation site. When working at there peak these pumps would remove as much as 20,000 gallons of water-per-minute, sending it back into the Missouri River, over a half mile away.

With the water problem solved the digging began in earnest. Finally on November 26th a load of dirt was lifted exposing the boat's wooden beams and paddle wheel. One hundred and thirty two years after it's sinking the steamboat Arabia once again saw the light of day.

Several days later on November 30th, the first of many artifacts would be found. It was a pair of Goodyear rubber shoes, patented in 1849. The crew was set to work throughout the winter when the water table was at its lowest and on December 5th the first wooden shipping barrel was lifted out of the cargo hold. When the mud-covered lid was removed a single china bowl emerged still packed in soft yellow packing straw. Before the day ended almost 200 pieces of elegant, unbroken dishware would be recovered.

And on it went; cases of eye glasses; ink wells; food bottles; medicines; spoons; bells; wrenches; guns; pocket knives; no two cases seemed to be exactly alike, all holding remains of the frontier era.

Working in shifts both day and night the recovery continued for four months until the entire cargo of the Arabia was removed. After removing the cargo heavy equipment hoisted the 25,000 pound boiler, paddle wheel structures, and finally the stern portion of the boat itself.

On Saturday evening, February 11th 1980 the excavation came to an end. The diesel generators and water pumps were turned off, workers, bulldozer, and cranes moved away from the site. Within hours, ground water returned filling in the now near empty grave of the Arabia.

As I approached the Arabia Steamboat Museum in downtown Kansas City my level of excitement and anticipation began to rise. The Arabia was heading to the frontier gold fields of Montana, surely she would have been carrying many types of bottles in her cargo: food jars and medicines without doubt, but what else?

After paying my admission I joined one of the regular guided tours through the 30,000 square foot building. Our guide was excellent and knowledgeable explaining the history of the Arabia, it's sinking and eventual excavation. Upon entering the main area of the museum I broke away from the group to explore on my own. Case after case of artifacts, a virtual treasure chest of the American frontier was on display.

I soon located what I had traveled this distance to see -- bottles! Food bottles embossed `Well's, Miller & Provost' filled several shelves, many had original lead labels and contents. Earlier `large size', Dr. Hostetter's Bitters, were in abundance, as were a number of unembossed `lady's leg' bottles, both having original contents. Peppersauce bottles with the desirable `Western Spice Mills' embossed appeared in several areas, as did a sprinkling of various pontiled cologne and scent bottles. One case exhibited several rows of medicine bottles. One case exhibited several rows of medicine bottles: `Mexican Mustang Liniment', `McGuire Druggist, St. Louis', and `Nerve and Bone Liniment', all still in there original contents. Ink bottles, still in there original packing box, and early case gins were also to be found. To me the most rewarding display of all was a portion of one wall holding row after row of early Scroll flasks! Approximately 100 were on display, all being pint and quart size. They were displayed in alternating rows of deep aquamarine and medium yellow green and all sparkled like the day they were blown!

Before leaving I had the opportunity to speak with one of the men who discovered and was involved in the excavation of the Arabia. Since the artifacts on display made up only a small portion of the cargo, I had a few question to ask. Bob Hawley was glad to listen and quick to supply answers. “Was there any half-pint scroll flask in the cargo,” I asked? “No”, Bob replied, “we have a number of cases of these flasks not on display, but none are in the half pint size”. “Colors, any others besides the aqua and yellow green on display?” Again the reply was somewhat disappointing. “No, all the flasks found were in these two colors.” Before parting I ask Bob Hawley if it was all worth it. The expense, the time and the uncertainty that when found would any of the cargo still be on the Arabia.

“When we started out we were mostly treasure hunters looking for exactly that, treasure; things that we could sell. After we realized what we had discovered, a certain understanding for exactly what we found set in. The largest single discovery of artifacts from the time of the early frontier, a time capsule that all should be able to see, and learn from. So we sold none of it, instead creating this wonderful museum housing the artifacts for all to enjoy.”

I know I did.

The Arabian Steamboat Museum is located at: 400 Grand Ave, Kansas City, MO. Hours are Monday - Saturday 10 AM to 6 PM and Sunday noon to 5 PM, admission is $6.00 for adults, $3.75 for children 4 -12, children under 3 are free. For more information: PH: (816) 471-4030


Take in a bottle show? We did!

After departing the Arabia Steamboat Museum I drove over to the Governor's Building to attend the Kansas City Bottle Collectors Annual Show & Sale. This was a new show, only in its second year, but Show Chairman James Maxwell has high hopes.

"This is an ideal location, the Kansas City Flea Market takes up about three-fourths of the building with our bottle show having the rest. This way you get a good mix of dealers going back and forth between the two. And it's all in the same building."

Indeed the flea market was huge with over 350 booths. I strolled the isles looking for things of interest to me, but found little. A few bottles showed up here and their but most were of the common variety, or over priced. I did better buying some sports memorabilia, including a book showing the early Kansas City Athletics baseball team from the mid-1950's.

The bottle show was small by some standards but is growing."We had about 35 tables last year but are up to 51 this year," said Jim Maxwell. "We've already had a number of repeat dealers and new dealers ask about next year. On the strength of this we are planning on 75 tables."

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