The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a 30,000-square-foot historical museum that opened on November 13, 1991 in the Kansas City River Market, Kansas City, Missouri. This museum houses artifacts salvaged from the Arabia, a steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in 1856. River Salvage Inc., the company who excavated the Arabia and launched the museum, claim to have the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.
The museum’s collection consists of hundreds of thousands of items intended for daily life on the frontier including thousands of pairs of boots and shoes, hundreds of hats, ax heads, pickle jars, pocket knives, and one children’s doll. All items can be traced back to 1856 or earlier; most of them were brand-new merchandise heading to general stores on the frontier.
History of Arabia Steamboat Museum
The steamboat Arabia hit an object and sank in the Missouri River on September 5, 1856. All 130 passengers survived, but an estimated 220 tons of cargo went down with the ship. 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. This company was comprised of a group of friends and business owners that were determined to uncover the cargo. Although their original goal was to sell their discoveries, the historical importance of artifacts quickly became apparent, and they started to plan a museum.
After the excavation of the Arabia, the next challenge for the partners of River Salvage Inc. was learning to clean and preserve the discovered items. 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 specifically dug by the team. The ongoing preservation process is still in play today at the museum. Preservationists gently remove oxidized material from metal artifacts using metal tools and special erasers. Shoes, boots, and garments must be re-stitched since their cotton thread dissolved under water. It has been predicted that the preservation of the collection will be completed in 2022.
Visitors to the museum today can expect 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 museum’s 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. There is a 171-foot-long full-scale reproduction of the Arabia’s main deck, where viewers 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 has consistently enjoyed many accolades. The Kansas City Star named it “Rookie of the Year” in 1992 after having hosted over 20,000 visitors in two months. As of 2013, it continued to draw more than 80,000 visitors per year. US News & World Report ranks it number one on its list of “Best Things To Do in Kansas City.”
The museum also features a gift shop, snack bar, and meeting space.