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When you think about Kansas City, “steamboat” is probably not the first word to pop into your mind. But if you’re visiting Kansas City, the Arabia Steamboat Museum may just turn out to be one of your favorite experiences.
The museum is located on the Missouri side of Kansas City at the City Market, a great place to visit on its own.
If you go on a Saturday, the area will have booths set up in addition to the normal shopping and food choices.
You can shop for crafts, flowers, produce, and food. There are plenty of things to sample here!
It’s like a farmer’s market on steroids.
And if you’re staying near the free KC Streetcar, hop on the streetcar at one of the stops and ride it to the end of the line. This is exactly what we did during our visit; it was a nice ride through the city, and we didn’t have to worry about parking in the area. You can make a day of it, or at least a morning or afternoon: shopping, dining, and checking out one of the most unique museums anywhere–the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum: The Background
What makes this museum unique is the artifacts on display were unintentionally preserved underground for 132 years. The items in the museum look like they did the day the Steamboat Arabia sank. Let me explain.
In the 1850s, rivers were the major way of transporting goods throughout the United States. In 1856, the Steamboat Arabia was transporting goods along the Missouri River to be sold to stores and ultimately customers. The cargo included supplies and everyday items people depended on, from food staples to dishes, clothing, and shoes. Even the not-so-ordinary items were onboard, items considered luxuries for many people living in the Midwest and beyond.
One fateful day in September, the Steamboat Arabia hit a tree snag beneath the surface of the Missouri River just a few miles from Kansas City. The steamboat sank, though initially, the upper decks remained above the surface. The story goes that only a mule perished in the sinking of the Steamboat Arabia, so it’s nice to know that there were no human casualties. Over the next few days, the steamboat continued to sink until the entire thing was underwater and mud. Though some attempts were made to retrieve the cargo, these attempts were unsuccessful.
Fast forward to the late 1980s. Bob Hawley and his sons began researching the sinking of the Steamboat Arabia. Since the Missouri River had changed course, it wasn’t a matter of just looking under the current river. They consulted old maps and used modern technology to search for the sunken steamboat. They finally located it 45 feet below the surface on a farm; the farmer gave them permission to dig as long as they did it in the winter and were finished by spring.
In 1988, the Steamboat Arabia was found, and the family and some family friends began the task of unearthing the steamboat and the cargo inside. Before spring rolled around, Hawley and his team had removed everything they intended to, and they filled in the hole.
The family began the process of preserving the items they found, and in 1991, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened in City Market. The preservation process for the cargo continues today.
“About the Museum | the Arabia Steamboat Museum | Kansas City.” Arabia, 2015, www.1856.com/about-the-museum. Accessed 5 Aug. 2022.
Wikipedia Contributors. “Arabia (Steamboat).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 12 July 2022, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabia_(steamboat). Accessed 5 Aug. 2022.
Visiting the Arabia Steamboat Museum
After we explored City Market, it was time to check out the Arabia Steamboat Museum. We purchased our tickets in the gift shop, and soon our tour began.
When our group was called, we headed downstairs to begin our adventure.
After some initial information, the first thing your tour group will encounter is a film about the background. We also met a family member after the film who gladly answered questions about their journey and the artifacts they found. After the presentation, we were turned loose to tour the museum in a self-guided way.
We couldn’t get over the sheer number of artifacts, wonderfully preserved, held in this museum. Remember, all of this had been cargo on the steamboat. There are numerous complete sets of…everything!
Some displays are endless shelves of artifacts.
While other displays place the items in context.
There’s even a general store, where many of the items would’ve ended up before becoming the items in someone’s home.
You can even “window shop.”
There were even some displays with items you could interact with, like smelling perfume.
You could also get lucky and get to see some of the preservation work that is ongoing.
The Arabia Steamboat
The final part of the museum shows visitors the history behind steamboats themselves, including the Steamboat Arabia.
You’ll see how steamboats functioned and what it was like to work on one.
One of the displays had a menu from a steamboat. I thought that was pretty cool.
The Arabia Steamboat Museum is a pretty amazing stop if you’re in Kansas City. I couldn’t believe the number of artifacts they had for display, and they’re still working on preserving more! I love history, and I love sharing outings like this with Kristin. Spending some time here helped us understand what life was like on our nation’s rivers a little over a century ago, Though the sinking was a huge financial loss at the time, the recovery of the Steamboat Arabia is a delightful gain for us today.
If you’d like some more ideas of what to do in Kansas City, Missouri, for families, click below: