They Uncover A 150-Year-Old Steamboat – But What’s Inside Is The Real Treasure

Waterways were a key passage for transporting goods long ago. But one fateful day, a fully loaded 171-foot-long Steamboat Arabia ventured down a path from which it never returned.

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Supplies Destined for Pioneers

In 1856, the steamboat built at the John Pringle boat-yard in West Brownsville, PA, was traveling up the Missouri River from Kansas, carrying supplies for general stores and pioneer settlements in 16 towns upstream. The vessel’s 222 tons of cargo on that trip included more than one million objects.

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Cruising In Style

The steamboat could cruise at more than five miles per hour and with a side wheel, or paddle wheel on each side, the steamboat could maneuver around hazards like sandbars and snags. But not that day.

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The Steamboat Began to Sink

As the steamboat Arabia crept up the churning river, it rammed into the thick trunk of a fallen tree. The glare of the midday sun shining on the water had hidden the tree from the captain’s sight. The tree trunk blasted through the thick hull of the steamboat. Water poured in and the Arabia quickly sank to the bottom of the river. Miraculously, everyone made it ashore safely, except for a poor mule that had been tied up on the deck. The steamboat settled into the muddy river bottom, disappearing completely within a few days.

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The Search Begins

Oddly enough, the river shifted half a mile to the east over time, hiding the boat. But in 1987, Kansas local, Bob Hawley, and his sons decided to search for and eventually uncovered the steamboat, which had been buried under 45 feet of farmland.

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Four Men Scavenge for Artifacts

People in the area heard the tales of the tragic ending of Steamboat Arabia, so the Hawleys used old maps and special equipment to guestimate its location.

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Excavating the Steamboat Arabia

Bob Hawley, his son Greg, and family friends, Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, worked on this project. The landowner of the farmland where the boat was buried gave the Hawleys permission to begin excavating the historical boat—as long as their work was wrapped up before spring planting.

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Big Equipment for a Big Job

So, the Hawleys brought in bulldozers, backhoes, drills and a 100-ton crane and got to work. They hired a well drilling company from Iowa to install 20 65-foot-deep wells to remove 20,000 gallons of water per minute. Each day, the excavating hole grew larger and within two weeks, the searchers spied their first glimpse of the Arabia.

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Mud Maintains Condition of Artifacts

Because the steamboat and its contents had been sitting for decades in an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment, buried in mud, many of the artifacts had been shockingly well preserved. They found the weathered timbers of the left paddlewheel that originally was 28 feet tall.

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First Finds Include Paddlewheel Shoe

Along with the paddle wheel, one of the first finds was a rubber shoe that sat on the muddy deck.

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Assortment of Items Unearthed

Crates of frontier merchandise contained luxuries and necessities for those living in 1856: castor oil and cognac, needles and nutmegs, windowpanes and wedding bands, eyeglasses and earrings, as well as long underwear, umbrellas and weapons.

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Bounty of Buried Treasure Revealed

By November 26, 1988, the Steamboat Arabia fully emerged from the muck and mire, revealing its 200 tons of buried treasure that had been perfectly preserved by the mud.

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China Still Intact

The Hawleys found a wooden crate filled with fine dining china.

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This Food Is Edible

Then, they found jars of preserved food that was still edible.

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Berries Buried 45-Feet Below

Many of the “pie fruits,” as they were known by in the 1800s, were found buried and preserved deep below the ground.

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Did You Seriously Just Eat That?

Believe or not, one the Hawleys taste-tested the discoveries themselves, including a very old pickle.

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General Store Goods Salvaged

Sets of dishes survived the ship’s sinking and many were retrieved intact.

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Hat Holds its Shape

Long ago, a gentleman’s hat such was made of wool felt, while some were made of beaver, which is a naturally waterproof material.

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Beautiful Buttons

Here is a sampling of 29 patterns of calico-patterned buttons found on the steamboat. The cotton dresses that some of the buttons adorned, however, weren’t so fortunate. The fabric dissolved after being under water for so long. But the porcelain buttons survived.

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Thousands of Shoes Shine Again

More than 4,000 shoes and boots, still packaged in shipping boxes for delivery, were uncovered. The shoes were for men, women and children and some were lined with buffalo hair giving additional warmth for the wearer.

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Sign Heralds Entrance to New Museum

Today, the artifacts unearthed from below a Kansas farm from the Steamboat Arabia are displayed in a Kansas City museum aptly called the Arabia Steamboat Museum that proudly displays the thousands of items retrieved from the excavation site.

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Arabia One of Hundreds of Sunken Steamboats

Historians say that more than 400 steamboats sank during the frontier period when they actively churned riverways. Yet, the Arabia is one steamboat that logged hundreds of miles before going under. You can see this magnificent steamboat with the museum’s display of the preserved 10-ton stern section of the boat and a full-sized reproduction of the main deck. Surely an incredible find that will be preserved and remembered for years to come!

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