In the years before the Civil War, steamboats carried passengers and freight up and down the Missouri River. It could be a hazardous journey. The river was constantly changing course and washing away the riverbanks, causing trees to fall into the water. The submerged trees were the death of many a steamboat.
That includes the Arabia. On September 5, 1856, it hit a submerged log that ripped open the hull. The boat was close to the banks and took a while to sink, so passengers and crew had time to climb into a rowboat that made multiple trips until every human being on board was safely on shore. The only casualty was a mule who had been tied up and was forgotten in the scramble.
The boat’s owners may have thought they could come back in the morning to salvage the cargo, but by that time most of the Arabia had sunk into the silt. The boat and its cargo were lost.
Fast forward 130 years, when several local businessmen heard about the Arabia and became obsessed with finding and recovering it. They were ordinary small businessmen, not scientists or archaeologists or even historians, but they studied and they learned and they did it right. After locating the steamboat in a farmer’s field and getting the farmer’s permission to excavate the site, the men took all possible precautions to preserve the boat and its contents.
Our vacation included a stop at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, where the history and the cargo are on display. Much of the ship had crumbled over the years, but most of the cargo was intact. That includes china, woolen goods (coats, bolts of fabric, and hats), and even wooden clothes pins. All of the cotton dresses had disintegrated, but they left thousands of buttons behind.
Fashions change and dryers have replaced clothes pins, but I appreciate people who preserve our history.