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Painting of the Arabia (Credit: Gary Lucy)

The Steamboat Arabia was built in West Brownsville, Pennsylvania, 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 carried up to 222 tons of cargo, including tools for the frontier, merchandise for general stores and federal mail. But navigating the Mighty Missouri was a difficult and dangerous business.

A variety of perils awaited the steamboat pilot as he carefully guided his craft along the river’s uncertain course.


The most treacherous of the many hazards were fallen trees lying hidden from sight just under the river’s surface. These “snags” crippled and sank hundreds of steamboats from the 1820s to the 1870s. On September 5, 1856, just outside of Kansas City, the Arabia hit one of these snags and sank in a matter of minutes. Thankfully, 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, local A/C and furnace repair company owner Bob Hawley, along with his sons David and Greg, learned of the Arabia's story and discovered 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. They partnered with long-time friend and customer Jerry Mackey, who operated a local fast food chain. Shortly after, the fifth and final member of the team, construction business owner David Luttrell, came on board—and, together, these five men set out to recover the Arabia’s long lost cargo.


The four-and-a-half-month excavation resulted in the discovery of the largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. Beautiful glass bottles illustrate the care taken in producing containers for ordinary contents such as liquor or ketchup. Small-mouthed bottles contain preserved fruits for pies, as well as bright green sweet pickles. (They were still edible!)

These, along with buttons, beads, clothing, tools, weaponry ... all this and more was found aboard the sunken ship.


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. A visit to the museum is a glimpse into the past. The contents of the Arabia’s cargo can fascinate a visitor for hours. Case after case, window after window, the world during 1856 comes to life in the everyday items recovered.


When the Arabia sank, some said she carried gold ... others said fine china.

What was actually discovered will amaze you.

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