Missouri's Bounty

The air was still warm and humid as the sun levitated above the horizon. The up-river
process began as it had for the past week, many of the passengers having boarded the
Steamboat Arabia in the busy port of St. Louis, Missouri, on August 30, 1856. The captain
gave the signal for the engineers to feed steam to the engines, and the industrial-age
machines turned the giant wheels against the opaque water of the mighty Missouri River.
Stragglers heard the steam whistle’s warning, then scurried up the gangplanks, not wanting
to be left behind on the limestone docks of the town of Kansas. The piano music that danced
from the levee saloon onto the Arabia’s decks faded into the past as the ship chuffed and
slapped its way northward against the steady current. Steerage passengers staked out
patches of wooden deck space for the long night ahead. Inside, those travelers who could
afford cabin passage stepped into formalwear and prepared for the sumptuous dinner that
would soon be laid before them. In other words, it was just another night on a pre-Civil
War steamboat. But there would be nothing routine for the Arabia’s 130 passengers on the
evening of September 5, 1856. A submerged walnut tree would see to that. The snag crashed
through the bow of the boat, jolting the craft to a stop. Water flooded the holds almost
instantly, and the 171-foot-long Arabia was forced to the bottom of the Missouri in only
five minutes. As the frantic passengers scurried for shore, the boat’s hull settled into
the mud 15 feet below the river’s surface. The water — only moments before facilitating
travel and commerce — now ripped the once-graceful craft to pieces. Miraculously, however,
only one living creature was lost, a mule that, despite its owner’s protests to the
contrary, was never untied from the lumber-mill jack at the boat’s stern. The productive
life and sudden demise of the Arabia might only have garnered a paragraph or two in a book
about Missouri River steamboats had it not been for the efforts of five modern-day treasure
hunters. These mechanically inclined men with a fascination for steamboats compared maps of
the Missouri’s long-ago route to its contemporary path. They examined the map of Captain
H.M. Chittendon, who in 1897 charted the 289 steamboat wrecks that dappled the river bottom
between St. Louis and Pierre, South Dakota. They determined that the Arabia must lie
beneath a cornfield owned by Norman and Beulah Sorter, 10 miles north of Kansas City at
Quindaro Bend. Then these adventurers, bolstered only by private funding, decided to dig
the Arabia and its 222 tons of frontier merchandise up. The struggles and successes of this
audacious salvage project, as well as the seemingly endless “treasure” these men unearthed,
captivate the 150,000 annual visitors to Kansas City’s Arabia Steamboat Museum, located at
400 Grand Boulevard, part of the downtown City Market, the largest open-air farmers’ market
in six states. “Do you know how much money we found on board?” asks Greg Hawley, one of the
salvagers, after visitors have watched a short movie about the Arabia’s saga. Children
guess large sums, then decrease their guesses as Hawley urges them downward. “Just 26
cents,” Hawley says, getting the expected laughs. Hawley knows that when people hear of
sunken treasure, they think golden chalices, ducats and doubloons, not medicine bottles,
buttons and boots. But the Arabia was a ship laden with frontier cargo, merchandise that
would help hardy folks endure harsh living conditions while building homes that would
eventually huddle together to become towns. “We call it the floating Wal-Mart because of
the quantities,” says Hawley, “but also because we don’t go to Wal-Mart to buy things we’re
going to pass down to our kids. We buy things we’re going to use.” So these are cultural
treasures — literally a boatload’s worth — on display. It has taken 12 years of scrubbing
and cataloguing to prepare the museum’s current contents and will take another 25 years to
complete the process. Ax heads and earrings, jack boots and bridal tack, J. Wedgwood china
and McGuire’s Elixir, pillboxes and guns … the list goes on and on. Rubbers, textiles and
leather goods — organics that can deteriorate — are displayed in a nitrogen-filled case.
Guests can handle open-end wrenches, knobs, locks and a steel spring in the Touch the
Treasure section of the Life on the Frontier display. And they can watch a technician work
in the Preservation Lab, as a cast-iron stove, a burlap bag of rope and a pump handle, for
example, change from gunk-encrusted objects to display-worthy artifacts. Stacks of long
underwear, bottles of sweet pickles, beads of every size and shape and keys to fit every
lock make up but a fraction of the bygone wares. The peek into the country’s past continues
from room to room, exhibit after exhibit, and everything is oddly familiar. “We find that
when people walk through our museum,” says Hawley, “they talk a lot with one another. And
often the conversation is surrounding things like, ‘Oh, looky there, Grandpa had one of
those. Oh, remember Grandma used one of those irons?’ It will connect to you the way it
connected to our family when we dug the boat, on a very personal level.” Indeed, it is easy
while looking at the antique eyeglasses and toothbrushes to wonder what it was like to live
without modern-day amenities. And it is difficult not to ponder the turbulent political
climate on the Kansas-Missouri border at the threshold of the Civil War when presented with
the history of the Beecher’s Bible — the name given the Sharp’s rifle — and the details
of the burning of Lawrence, Kansas, by William Quantrill and his raiders. Yet these
historical details simply help to define the country through which the Arabia made her
course. And today, photos capture the conditions the steamboat hunters had to endure.
Pictures of the 20 high-powered pumps that fought ’round the clock to keep the excavation
site from flooding capture the endlessness of the process. Images of the giant cranes help
define the technological complexity involved. And the shots of frozen faces swaddled in
winter-wet clothes remind museum visitors that every great endeavor, built on dreams and
determination, requires adventurers to overcome numerous hardships in order for future
generations to treasure their accomplishment.

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