Museum of the Moment: Arabia Steamboat Museum

September 18, 2019

What good can come from a shipwreck? Quite a lot, actually.

Get to know the Arabia Steamboat Museum, one of Kansas City’s most unique historical attractions—offering an in-depth glimpse into 19th century frontier life of the American West.

The History

Before the United States was connected by railroads, the noble riverboat ruled the transportation industry, particularly in the still-developing West.

The Missouri River was once a hotbed for this interstate commerce and travel. Dangerous though it was—fallen trees and other hidden obstacles could easily snag and cripple unsuspecting boats—merchants and passengers alike utilized riverboats to traverse miles and miles of country, either to capitalize on business ventures or to search for new lives.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum tells a story of the American West through the lens of the ill-fated Steamboat Arabia, which met its demise in the middle of the 19th century and remained hidden for 132 years.

The Shipwreck

Steamboat Arabia was constructed in Pennsylvania in 1853. The 171-foot boat could hold up to 222 tons of cargo, as well as passengers, and regularly made trips along the Missouri River during an era when settlements in Westport and Independence were best-known as jumping off points for the Santa Fe, California and Oregon trails.

After only three years on the water, Steamboat Arabia hit a snag of its own in September 1856. It only took a few minutes, but 200 tons of cargo was completely surrendered to the river. Thankfully, this tale is significantly less tragic than other infamous shipwrecks, because all 150 passengers and crew escaped safely.

However, the ship’s cargo remained embedded in the earth for more than 100 years. In 1988, a local father and his two sons learned Steamboat Arabia’s story and discovered its wreckage 45 feet underground—soil and erosion had shifted the path of the river—less than a half-mile away from the current channel of the Missouri.

Two more friends joined the trio and, four and a half months later, excavated the shipwrecked cargo—the single largest collection of pre-Civil War items in the world.

The Museum

The Arabia Steamboat Museum displays this fascinating collection of artifacts once thought forever lost to history.

Visitors can ride the KC Streetcar to the institution, located at The City Market in Kansas City’s charming River Market neighborhood. There, they’ll find a time capsule depicting frontier life during the middle of the 19th century.

Treasures include clothing, weaponry and tools, as well as everyday items like sweet pickles, liquor, ketchup and fruit preserves—all of which was originally destined for the shelves of pioneer general stores. As a result, museumgoers can truly step back in time to get a taste of the routine lives of the region’s recent ancestors.

Tours of the facility—open seven days a week—run every 30 minutes on the hour and at the half hour, beginning first with a 20-minute guided intro followed by a short film. The remainder of the experience is self-paced, and in whole, the museum recommends expecting at least an hour and a half to view every exhibit.