Steamboat Arabia and the Ever-Changing Missouri River

China dishes found intact as part of cargo of  steamboat Arabia which sank in 1856 in Missouri River.
China dishes found intact as part of cargo of steamboat Arabia which sank in 1856 in Missouri River.

The story of the steamboat Arabia and the recent flooding of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers provide exaggerated examples of how rivers are constantly changing course. Whether it’s the accumulation or erosion of silt, log jams, sandbars, dredging, drought, or flooding, rivers cut new channels which can change their width, depth, length, and location. Navigating waterways today is much easier than it was in the 19th century, but it was during the 1800s that the Missouri River, known for swift current and hidden dangers, was heavily traveled by steamboats.

Large paddle wheels and twin stacks were a common sight with decks filled with people headed west. Cargo holds contained feed sacks, furniture, and trunks filled to capacity. Having an experienced pilot who knew every twist and turn of the river was no guarantee of a safe passage. There was always a danger of boilers exploding, collisions, epidemics, running aground on sand bars, and getting snagged (hitting a jagged tree trunk partially hidden below the surface of the water). Out of an estimated 400 steamboats shipwrecked on the Missouri River, 300 were attributed to snags. One of those was the steamboat Arabia.

She was built in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in 1853. After proving herself on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, she was purchased by a captain in St. Charles, Missouri. Her first trip on the Missouri River was in 1855 when she took soldiers from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas , to Fort Pierre, South Dakota. From there, she continued west another 700 miles to the Yellowstone River in western North Dakota. That trip took close to three months. She made 14 additional trips on the Missouri River to various destinations in 1856, and had earned the reputation of being comfortable, fast, and reliable.

Arabia departed St. Louis on August 30th, 1856 for Sioux City, Iowa, with various stops along the way including Kansas (present-day Kansas City). She was near what is now part of the metropolitan area of Kansas City when she hit a large, hidden walnut snag that tore through her oak hull. The steamboat immediately began filling up with water and the cargo stowed below sank within minutes. Passengers rushed to the upper deck, which remained above water, for their chance to be rescued by the steamboat’s single lifeboat.

It didn’t take long for the 171-foot-long steamboat to sink in the soft mud-filled river bottom. Only the tops of the smokestacks and the pilot house remained above water, but they, too, sank within a few days. The swift current added to the difficulty of trying to salvage her. Over time, seasonal flooding, silt deposits, layers of top soil, and the natural formation of new channels kept Arabia buried until 1988, for a total of 132 years.

Pitcher recovered from the 1856 shipwreck of the steamboat Arabia
Pitcher recovered from the 1856 shipwreck of the steamboat Arabia

David Hawley found Arabia 45 feet below ground in a field in Kansas with the aid of maps and a metal detector. This field was one-half mile away from the river. The drilling, water pumping,  and bulldozing soon revealed part of her paddle wheel. After that, in addition to other parts of the steamboat, thousands of items such as perfume, liquor, spices, dishes, buttons, jewelry, skeleton keys,  tools, and marbles were not only found, but were in excellent condition. The collection is part of the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

Written by: Cynthia Collins – Museum Correspondent

Steamboat Arabia Museum