Sunday, 17 November 2013

Catchup Part Six – Goin’ to Kansas City

Unlike us lazy Europeans, who can have from three weeks to up to five weeks annual leave, most US citizens only have a couple of weeks holiday (vacation) and so once back from our Washington trip, the Son (TS) and the Daughter in Law (TDIL) had to return to work almost as soon as we arrived back and we returned to grandson sitting duties for that week. The next week end on the Saturday, we went to Kansas City to visit the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

This is a fascinating place owned and run by a family of treasure hunters who managed to find a horde of lost treasure - two hundred tons of it as it happens.

In the early days of pioneering America, before the railroads were built, major rivers like the Ohio, Mississippi and the Missouri were the trunk roads of the land. 
The old paddle steamers carrying huge cargoes of goods needed by the settlers and pioneers were plying the rivers. Over the years, these have been romanticised by Hollywood as floating gambling dens, populated by suave neatly dressed men, with black hats and armed with tiny but deadly derringers and high scoring cards for poker secreted about their person. In reality, these vessels were cargo carrying work boats, plying a dangerous trade in treacherous waters.
The steamboat Arabia, typically loaded almost to the waterline

Samuel Clemens, writing as Mark Twain wrote a lot of fictional and factual works about them, having worked on steamboats on the Mississippi, where his descriptions of conditions are more realistic than Hollywood.

It is well known that Clemens took his nom de plume Mark Twain, from the cry of the man sounding the depth of the river to test when the water became dangerously shallow. The term 'mark twain' was called when the sounding line showed two marks on the rope and it meant the river was still deep enough, but only just.  It sounds like a proper name, but in some circles at that time it was an insult, since a Mark Twain was a shallow person.  It is possible that Clemens was gently taking the rise from his own writings by adopting the name.   It happens, maybe you should look up the meaning of my Blog's name.

Apart from the dangers of boiler explosions, which were commonplace, the rivers themselves produced their own dangers.   The Missouri River was one of the more dangerous since it is shallow and changes course daily, leaving sandbanks at random all along its course and most dangerously of all, the erosion of the banks sweep trees into the river to produce what are known as ‘snags’. A snag is a partially submerged tree trunk which will easily knock a hole in the hull of a wooden steamer if not spotted and avoided.
This is actually the Kansas River, which joins the Missouri at Kansas City. It looks peaceful enough here, but it has much the same nature
A few yards downstream there are some snags marked with orange buoys, so it is still just as dangerous today.

Over the ten years between 1850 and 1860, it has been estimated that between 290 to 400 riverboats were sunk in the Missouri alone. No one knows the true figure, but even at its lowest, that is a lot of wrecks in just ten years. Since most were sunk with cargo, there have been a lot of treasure hunters looking for them. However, the Missouri has a few tricks up its sleeve yet and over the years has changed its course by more than a mile in some places and much of its old course is now under farmland. As a result, if you want to find a steamboat, you may need to look in a cornfield.
Apart from the historic interest and the antiques to be found, one of the attractions to treasure hunters is the tale of cargoes of gold, silver coins and whiskey, any of which are a strong incentive to search for certain steamboats. Many wrecks were either known about precisely or have been found, but not all of them could be excavated for a variety of reasons. One of the known wrecks was the steamboat Arabia known to be buried in a farmer’s field in Kansas, where it had sunk when the Missouri River ran across that part of what is now Kansas.  The state border is the river, so the states of Kansas and Missouri change position now and then as the river changes course and the Arabia sank in the state of Missouri, but is now buried in Kansas.

Changes in the course of the river and the present position of the Arabia

The Arabia was rumoured to contain a cargo of Kentucky whiskey, which by now would be well matured and attempts to excavate the site failed consistently due to it being deep below the water table and in wet sand. If you have ever made sandcastles on a beach, then you will know that any water will make sand collapse and flow, which will rapidly fill in any excavations, but in 1988, the Hawley family were able to devise a means of excavating this vessel and have since extracted most of its cargo.
This aerial picture shows the scale of the job they had, from the size of the trucks and tractors compared to the outline of the sunken vessel.
Unfortunately the whiskey was not found, even if it did exist, it would have been washed away during the wreck, since it would have been stacked on the upper decks. What they did find was quite sufficient to stock the present museum with an impressive collection, which includes the engine and some of the ship’s hull. The Arabia sank in 1856 and so had on board a number of pre American Civil war artefacts, some of which had never been seen before in the present day. In the UK, 1856 does not sound so ancient, since we live in what is rapidly becoming a giant museum with preserved buildings, structures and artefacts dating back several thousand years, but to Americans the Civil War was a watershed in their history where much was destroyed and lost forever. So the treasures from the Arabia are in many cases very scarce and, in one case, completely unknown to exist at that time. A number of vulcanised rubber buggy whips and shoe soles were found made by Goodyear. This was a surprise because the accepted wisdom was that the method of vulcanising rubber did not start until after the Civil War and even the manufacturers themselves were unaware their company had introduced the process so early.

The snag that sunk her was still imbedded in the bow
The items on display in the Steamboat Museum range from the exotic to the mundane, but come from an almost inaccessible past. There were several kinds of bottled and pickled foodstuffs which are still preserved. The largest quantity of the finds consist of boots, clothes, hats, weapons, buggy whips, cutlery, jewels, buttons, toys, barrels of nails, timber tools, pots, pans and so many things it would be very boring of me to list them all.  Amongst these well preserved items was a considerable amount of Wegwood china, imported from England.  Wedgwood of that vintaage is much sought after and very few people in the world will have such a large collection.

Some of the china and pots and pans
Much of the cargo was heading for frontier general stores and so there are entire inventories for stocking up all the day to day items you would expect to need when creating a home from scratch and the sheer quantity is mind blowing.
Frontier hardware.  The curved things at the top are weighing scales, in case you are wondering
All these things have been carefully and painstakingly restored and presented, sometimes en mass, in the museum. The overall effect is stunning and the work that must have been put in to both the excavation and the restoration, which is still on-going is legendary. Really it is a most memorable place to visit and I would recommend it to anyone.
Apologies to the museum for making use of some of your pictures, but I did buy your book, Treasure in a Cornfield, and I hope this has generated some interest and readers of my blog, who will maybe  follow the link to...  The museum website.


  1. It's all fascinating stuff. We tend to forget how Americans see mid 19th century as ancient.
    Kansas isn't a part of the States I'd considered visiting, but it clearly has some interesting places. Thanks for giving us a glimpse.

  2. Interesting to know how Mark Twain got his name. I've always thought that a trip on the Delta Queen down the Mississippi would be an ideal and peaceful vacation.

  3. How interesting that you and your cousin both blogged about boats! I would love to have been one of those people diving for the must have seemed like Christmas every time they came up with something new ! What a huge job, and what a load of stuff they found!