- Historic Sites
How a group of prospectors, digging for a strike, turned up the whole mid-nineteenth century
April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
Having decided that the Arabia ’s cargo needed to stay together, the Hawleys now had to figure out what to do with it. Several museums wanted the collection, but Bob and his sons kept toying with the idea of creating their own place. Eventual revenue from a museum could help repay the cost of the task. The perfect match was made when Kansas City officials, in the process of revitalizing the old City Market area, approached the family with the idea that that location was right for a prime tourist attraction. Historically the spot made sense. The Market, founded in 1857, was close to the river and the site of the Arabia ’s last port of call.
As the work proceeded through January, the excavation phase of the project approached its end. Every trace of the adventure had to be eradicated before spring planting. Because of the difficulty of preserving wood, the only wooden pieces of the Arabia to be salvaged were part of the stern, the capstan, and the supporting structure for one paddle wheel. It was with very mixed emotions that the workers lifted the stern away from the rest of the Arabia .
On February 11, 1989, the pumps—20 of them by now—were shut down, and an eerie silence settled. The men watched solemnly as water began to trickle into the hole. “One timber at a time,” said Greg, “the Arabia was drowning for the second and last time.” No gold. But, summing up the adventure, Greg says, “Excavating the Arabia was like shaking hands with the pioneers. . . . I had met my forefathers through the items most precious in their lives.”
On November 13, 1991, three years to the day after excavation began, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened. A million and a quarter visitors have seen it, and the collection has opened eyes and minds to the reality of life on the frontier.
The Hawleys have chosen to display the entire cargo as it becomes available from the ongoing work of preservation. The sheer number of items from this single vessel can give a new understanding of the sort of material energy that helped fuel the nation’s westward expansion: A million nails, for instance, and 35,000 buttons. Half the 200-ton cargo is already on display, but the Hawleys estimate that preserving and restoring all the items still in storage will take more than 20 years.
Robert J. Keckeisen, director of the Kansas Museum of History, describes his reaction: “It’s a fabulous collection . . . a real window into the time period. A lot of people have a picture of the 1850s as just people living in rough log cabins. Certainly some were, but there were also people living in houses with finished construction and dining off fine china.”
The Hawleys call the Arabia a “floating Wal-Mart.” As for actual treasure, the lifelong prospectors found a total of 26 cents.