The Story of Steamboat Arabia

The steamboat Arabia was built in West Brownsville, Penn., at the boatyard of John S. Pringle in 1853. At 171 feet long, the Arabia traveled the Missouri River and transported passengers, as well as carrying up to 222 tons of cargo. Navigating the Missouri was a difficult and dangerous business, and a variety of perils awaited the steamboat captain as he carefully guided his craft along the river’s uncertain course. The most treacherous of the hazards were fallen trees lying hidden from sight just under the river’s surface. On Sept. 5, 1856, just outside of Kansas City, the Arabia hit one of the tree snags and sank in a matter of minutes. Fortunately, the 150 passengers and crew made it off the boat safely, but the 200 tons of cargo were lost to the muddy river, not to be seen again for over 130 years. In the winter of 1988, Bob Hawley and his sons David and Greg learned of the Arabia’s story and managed to find the boat’s location. Years of erosion and shifting sand left the sunken paddleboat 45 feet underground and a half-mile away from the present channel of the Missouri River. After almost five months of excavation, they reached the boat and discovered the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. Glass bottles, buttons, beads, clothing, tools, and weaponry were found aboard the sunken ship. Today, the treasures are housed at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City's River Market — a collection that reveals details of frontier life seen nowhere else.