Steamboat Arabia holds a treasure trove of history in Kansas City

It was 1856. The 3-year-old Steamboat Arabia was fully stocked to deliver wares to 16 cities.

As it rounded a bend in the Missouri River just south of Parkville, the boat hit a giant tree trunk and sank to the bottom of the river.

Everybody onboard got off in time, but the boat and the massive amount of its goods - whiskey, leather, tools, clothing, food, medicine and more - nestled into the bottom of the Missouri.

It would sit there for more than a century.

The river shifted - as rivers do - over the years, changing its path until the sunken ship was buried 45 feet deep in the middle of a farm field.

That is the story of the Steamboat Arabia - the early years.

The story of the family who found the ship in 1988 is fascinating. The dad, his two sons and a few friends all pitched in $10,000 each. They were going to rent the equipment needed to dig up the field and unearth history.

They had $50,000 between them.

That money was gone before they knew it. They borrowed from the bank. Then they borrowed again and again and again.

The hole they dug was 45 feet deep, 300 feet long and 200 feet wide. It took them four months of hard labor.

All the while, the dad and his sons continued with their day jobs repairing furnaces.

They would work from 6 to 9 a.m. repairing furnaces, go out to the boat’s site to dig from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and then from 8 p.m. to midnight they would wash and freeze artifacts found.

They ended up $1 million in debt, but they had found the mother load.

They’d invested so much time and energy and heart they couldn’t bring themselves to sell it all. They made the decision to keep it together and find a home for display. They borrowed another $400,000 to renovate the current location at Fourth and Grand which was the basement of a wholesale warehouse at the time.

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes: The Arabia Steamboat Museum

They researched museums trying to learn how best to display everything. They found most museums didn’t have 4,000 boots and shoes. Most museums didn’t have that many plates to display, so the guys researched department stores.

David Hawley, in the basement of his home using foam core, built a model of how he envisioned the museum.

The museum opened Nov. 13, 1991. Hawley and his family build all the displays themselves. His mom runs the gift shop. They’ve repaid every penny.

The museum’s website gives a glimpse of all you’ll see when you visit:

Perhaps the greatest surprise will be the tremendous volume of artifacts on display. There were 4,000 shoes and boots recovered, over 3,000,000 Indian trade beads, dishes & housewares, guns, knives, tools, all manner of clothing items, and even two pre-fab homes.   Yes, it was possible then to order a kit-house and have it delivered to the frontier.

The unearthed Arabia is the world’s largest waterlogged collection of organic material and it’s all on display right here in Kansas City. To learn more about a visit, go to www.1856.com.

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