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Cover Story January 22nd, 2009

  Untitled Document

by lyle e davis

It was a fine, fall evening in the midwest. Just a touch of crispness in the air. Not yet fall but you just knew summer was over and winter wasn’t all that far away. But this evening, it was just a fine, fine fall evening as the Arabia steamed on Ol’ Big Muddy, the Missouri River near what is now Parkvale, Missouri.

She was a fine side wheeler steamboat, the Arabia, was. Built in just four weeks in 1853 on the banks of the Monongahela River in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, the Arabia was 171 feet in length and had a width of 29 feet, capable of carrying a full 222 tons of cargo. She was a packet boat which means it carried passengers and cargo, although it carried mostly cargo.

The Arabia traveled down the Ohio River and onto the Mississippi River, then up to St. Louis, where for the next 18 months, it would ply the waters of both rivers carrying cargo and passengers to the many river towns. In the spring of 1856, the Arabia entered the swift currents of the muddy Missouri for the first time.
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 fourteen trips between St. Louis and the frontier communities between March and August 1856.

On August 30, 1856, the Arabia began its final voyage up the Missouri. After a short stop at the town of Kansas, (now Kansas City, Missouri), she again started heading upriver, bound for her eventual stop at Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska (the two cities are across the river from each other) then on to Sioux City, Iowa.

The Arabia never made another port-of-call. Less than one hour above Kansas City at Quindaro Bend, the steamboat Arabia hit a large walnut tree just below the water level. It ripped through the Arabia's hull smashing crates of cargo packed inside. Within seconds, thousands of gallons of muddy Missouri River water swamped the boat. Over 200 tons of cargo destined for frontier merchants was lost. Fortunately no loss of human life had occurred. There was one fatality, a mule that had been tied up on deck, was unable to escape and drowned. It is said the mule took no notice nor concern about the rushing water until it reached its nostrils. By then it was too late.

At least one passenger, Mr. Able D. Kirk, who had just married in Peoria, Illinois, and was heading for Nebraska with his new wife, left us with his eyewitness account:

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.

And there matters stood for about 132 years. The river would seek out new channels, the old ones would silt up and form rich, river bottom land, highly desirable for farmland. In fact, in the early 1860’s, Elisha Sortor purchased the property that used to be the Missouri River channel.

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. Indeed, the story of the steamboat Arabia being on Elisha Sortor’s property became part of the family's folklore, as its story was told over and over.

Then, front and center, in 1987, there appeared a group of young men who were seeking adventure. The four-man team of Bob, David and Greg Hawley and Jerry Mackey, guid-ed by an old river map showing the approximate location of the steamship Arabia, set out to find the Arabia. Their search soon took them to the farm of Norman Sortor, whose land bordered the Missouri River on the Kansas side. Norman was the grandson of old Elisha Sortor.

photoAn 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 hours the wreck was located, over one-half mile from the current river's edge and 45 feet underground. Eighteen months later, on November 7, 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 their 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 26 a load of dirt was lifted, exposing the boat's wooden beams and paddle wheel. One hundred and thirty-two years after its sinking the steamboat Arabia once again saw the light of day.

Several days later, on November 30, 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 5 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.

photoAnd 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 11, 1990, the excavation came to an end. The diesel generators and water pumps were turned off, workers, bulldozers, and cranes moved away from the site. Within hours, ground water returned filling in the now near empty grave of the Arabia.

There was lots of preserved food on the Arabia. Pioneers would boil the food to kill all the bacteria that would make the food spoil. Next, they would place the boiled food in jars and seal the jars. When they wanted the food, they would just open the jar, get the food out, and seal it again when they were done. That was how they kept food from spoiling. Many foods, such as the pie fillings, looked good enough to eat. The brandied cherries from France traveled over 6,000 miles to pioneers so they could make cherry pies. Foods, such as green pickles, still looked and tasted good. They recovered jars of pickles, which Jerry Mackey put to the test. “I tried some of them,” he smiled. “They were still fresh and sweet!”

photoOne observer compared the 220 tons of recovered merchandise to “an 1856 WalMart -- the single greatest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.” One of the excavators found bottles filled with catsup. They were recovered in good condition from the steamboat’s excavation site.

About 5,000 pairs of boots and shoes were recovered. The ones that were sewed together with cotton thread were in many pieces. The first barrel they found contained fine European dishware. Almost 200 pieces of beautiful, unbroken dishware was found in one day. Each container was unique. One contained hundreds of gold-rimmed eyeglasses. Tens of thousands of buttons were recovered from around the site of the dig. Two thousand buttons are now cleaned, with still more to be cleaned. The buttons came in many different colors and materials. The buttons were made of wood, steel, china, rubber, horn, brass and glass. Two different kinds of beads were found - calico (named for their many different colors) and seed beads (named because of their size), also known as trade beads (called this because of their use - pioneers used them to trade the Indians for food and other items). Lots of doorknobs were found, some in clumps, on the ship. The porcelain doorknobs were cheaper than the clay, yet the clay ones were easier to make than the porcelain ones! Also found on the ship were “over shirts”, or Civil War jackets. These were put on over the normal shirt, like a coat. The shirts had a very wide collar. They had this so they could still show off the shirt that was under the over shirt. The shirts survived because they were made of animal proteins. Proteins of any sort survived the long underground years.

Where Items were From

There were items from all over the world. France, Italy, Bohemia, Belgium, South America and England were just some of the places cargo came from. When the icebox was discovered, they found an uneaten meal. Excavators found lots of chewing tobacco, cigars, clay pipes and pipe tobacco. Forty cigars were found on the boat. European dishware, preserved foods, shiny buttons, tailor-made clothing and beautiful textiles were found on the boat. Cotton dissolved in the water. Since wicks on the candles were cotton, they dissolved. The candles were made of tallow instead of wax. Washbasins, coffee tins, castor oil, cognac, needles, nutmeg, windowpanes, wedding bands, eyeglasses and earrings were found on the boat. Panes of glass were thicker than historians originally thought. The boat held lots of supplies headed for the frontier general stores for pioneers to buy. Several bottles of French perfume found still smelled so nice they came up with a reproduction perfume called “1856.” The steamboat had many tools on it. All of the tools were going to pioneers in the far west. The pioneers would then use the tools to build their houses and their barns. The pioneers also had “ready-to-build-houses,” pre-made here, so it was easier to build their homes. Two were excavated from the ship.

Why it was all in one place

photoThe cargo stayed around the steamboat and didn’t go downstream because the boxes and barrels that contained the cargo were heavy, plus the added weight of the cargo. Since the cargo was inside the boat, the cargo was protected from the currents by the steamboat itself; therefore it stayed within the steamboat. All the cargo was on the bottom floor. The cabins were on the upper floors.

Lots of the 200 tons of cargo on the Arabia was new merchandise to sell in Nebraska. The Arabia was being counted on to get those things to Nebraska. When they stopped the boat at towns, they unloaded some cargo. Then the crew had to move around the cargo, so it was level. If the boat was not level it would tilt to one side, making it heavier on one side than the other. If it tilted to one side it would probably sink. Lots of stores lost lots of money when the Arabia sank.

The deck passengers shared the deck with the animals and cargo. The people that didn’t have a lot of money went as deck passengers. It was hot in the back of the boat (where some passengers were) because of the boilers. It was very loud, too, because of the noise from the engine. People often played cards to pass the time. The animals were kept on the back because of their smell.

There were about 130 passengers on the last trip of the Arabia of which 30 were the crew. The Arabia had also carried Mormons to the West. Many passengers on the Arabia were moving west because they wanted more freedom and space. On April 1, 1856, the St. Louis Missouri Republican had the following ad in their newspaper:

“The good and staunch steamer Arabia, Captain Terrill on deck and Mr. Boyd in office will leave for St. Joseph this morning at 10 o’clock. The Arabia has an excellent accommodation for passengers and the officers are the right sorts of men. Go Aboard the Arabia and be at Home!”

In late August right after returning from a great trip to Sioux City, Iowa, Captain Terrill began loading the Arabia for a trip to this distant frontier town. The following ad was in the St. Louis Republican newspaper on August 30, 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.”

For the Captain and crew it was just another ride up the river, but none of them knew what would wait for them just another mile below Parkville.


George W. Boyd was the clerk on the last trip of the Arabia. In 1856, Captains were paid $200 a year. The Clerk was paid $150 a year. The Pilot was paid $300 a year. The Engineer was paid $150 a year, and the Mate was paid $150 a year, which was good wages for that time period.

The actual snag that sunk Arabia on display at the Museum

The Arabia used wood for heat and power and could burn 32 cords of wood each 24-hour steaming period. They chopped wood off the banks. Those trees died and drifted off into the water. These trees then made tree snags. The Arabia sank because of a tree snag. The tree snags would point up river, and the Arabia made lots of up river trips. The Arabia traveled as far as Pierre, South Dakota.

The captain was Captain J. William Terrill and he owned five boats. All five of his boats sank in less than five years. The clerk was Mr. Boyd. In 1819 steamboats began transporting things. That was when steamboats first began to travel on the rivers. Steamboats were a major source of transportation in the 1800’s.

It was a four level boat and was painted white. The Arabia was an average size for an 1850’s boat (big for a 1840`s boat, small for a 1860`s boat). On the inside of the boat there were 30 cabins, each 8ft by 6ft. The average life of a Missouri River boat was about five years. The Arabia lasted only about three years.

Some of the artifacts were highly valued as individual pieces. Their sale could help the partners pay the huge debt they had run up when digging up the Arabia. Should they sell some of the collection to finance the proper restoration and display of the rest of it? Was it realistic to think that all 220 tons of artifacts could be restored? And if so, what museum could possibly display it all?

The Hawleys’ refrigeration business, Mackey’s hamburger stand and Latrell’s small construction company did not generate big money, and big money is what they had spent on the excavation of the Arabia. In the end, they decided they should display the Arabia artifacts in a special museum they would create just for that purpose.

“Our initial investment of $50,000 was spent real quick on a crane, bulldozer, cable, lights, pipe, etc.,” Dave explained, “so we just paid for the project out of pocket for a while. As bills came up each week, we’d pay the fuel bill [for the heavy machinery], equipment bills, whatever. Well, that lasted for a while, but not for very long, because we could see the progress was moving slowly, and we still had a lot to do yet. So we went to our bank and borrowed $50,000 and thought that would be enough. Well, it wasn’t, so we borrowed a second $50,000, and then a third and fourth $50,000. And at that point, we were so far into it that we couldn’t quit – we had too much money invested in it. So we just kept digging and borrowing, and by the time we got done, we had spent just under a million dollars, most of it borrowed. We had this giant bill, and we’ve been paying loans ever since, but . . .”

He paused for emphasis. “We’ve never sold any artifacts. We’ve never had any grants or corporate sponsors or government money. The museum and the ongoing restoration of the artifacts are totally supported by the people who come to see it.”

photoAnd was ownership of the Arabia and its cargo a case of “finders, keepers?”

“No, it’s not as simple as that,” said Dave. “It belonged to the family of the guy who owned the land, Norman Sortor. We had promised we’d give him fifteen per cent of whatever we found. Of course, we weren’t going to clean his share, “ Dave laughed. “He’d have to do that himself. But he said that was fair. So we dug it up, and the Sortors came to look at it.” Norman said, ‘You know, it’s neat stuff, but the work that it’ll take to clean it is beyond our ability and our desire. It would be better kept with you, so keep it and share it with whoever comes.’ All the Sortors asked for were 20 things – a dish, a wrench, a bottle, a school slate, and some buttons and beads. The rest became his gift to the world, to all of the people who have come to see the Arabia collection.”

The treasures of the Arabia are now on display in the impressive Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It is a private enterprise, supported by revenue generated from its visitors, whose admission fees and purchases in the museum’s gift shop help to finance the museum.

The sheer number of artifacts on display is staggering. The collection is showcased in beautifully arranged exhibits, while the museum staff is continuing the slow process of restoring and preserving mud-encrusted artifacts. A nice feature is that museum visitors are permitted to watch as a technician restores an artifact.
“There is no fresh water preservation taught in any college or university in the United States,” explained a young lady in a lab coat, as she carefully chipped away at hardened mud and mineral deposits on an 1856 tool. “In fact, this is one of the few working fresh water labs in the United States.”

It is now eighteen years since the recovery of the Arabia’s cargo. She was asked how many artifacts remain to be cleaned and displayed.

“If they were all cleaned,” she replied, “we could probably double the size of the collection on display.”

That would probably take another building! Yet as work goes on to restore the Arabia’s treasures, Dave Hawley is already planning his next adventure.

If You Go:
Arabia Steamboat Museum
400 Grand Blvd.
Kansas City, Missouri 64106
(816) 471 1856

Monday - Sat 10am to 5:30pm
Sunday - noon to 5pm









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