Paul Harris visits a museum like no other, in Kansas City, America, which brings to life the frontier of the mid-19th century with the items folk would buy in those distant times
IT seems like a well-stocked department store. It has it all, from expensive crockery, cutlery to gleaming ironmongery, tools to suit most craftsmen, chandlery, the finest clothing and so much more.
It’s like something from a by-gone age. In fact, it is.
I’m standing among display case after display case of 220 tons of precious cargo from the Arabia steamboat which, in 1865, sunk in 15 feet of water, in the Missouri River, after striking a submerged walnut tree.
The cargo had been heading for stores throughout the region.
The Arabia was just one of many casualties of the the Mighty Missouri, the longest river in America.
At least 400 other vessels have plunged to oblivion on its 2,500 mile course over the years.
The salvaged goods are probably unlike any others rescued from a sunken ship, given their sheer quality, quantity and pristine condition.
The story behind its salvage is also unlike any other. It is not, as some have described it, Kansas City’s answer to the Titanic.
It starts in 1985 with a phone call from Bob Hawley to his son Greg.
“Let’s meet for lunch and discuss buried treasure,” said Bob, his voice loud and clear over the two-way radio in Greg’s truck.
Greg, who worked for the family air conditioning business, thought he had misheard his father and asked him to repeat what he thought he had just heard, but he got only a static hiss before they lost contact.
Greg turned up at their usual lunch haunt and found his brother Dave, Bob and Jerry Mackey, the restaurant owner, in deep conversation.
Dave had heard a story about sunken steamboats on the Missouri River.
During one of his service calls, an air-conditioning client told him about several steamers that had sunk during the 1800s, their hulls and cargo remaining buried in the river valley.
The river’s course had changed dramatically over the years which meant that steamboats (and potentially, hidden treasure) were no longer fathoms below the water, but under dry land. On privately-owned property, in fact.
The appetites of Bob, Greg and David where whetted.
Together with Jerry and another friend, David Luttrell, and using old maps and a proton magnetometer, they set out to discover the Arabia, three years later uncovering it half a mile from the present location of the river, under 45 feet of silt and topsoil.
They had managed to continue running their business by calling on clients each day between 6am and 9.30am, spending the remainder of their time on the quest for the Arabia, working until midnight with no break.
They took just half a day’s holiday for Xmas Day and Thanksgiving.
The owner of the farm, who had given permission for the family to excavate, had originally asked for 15 per cent of any proceeds from the sale of any artefacts they found.
Eventually he waived that right in return for a few pieces as souvenirs, when he heard of the plan to open a museum.
They had to rent heavy digging and lifting equipment and pumps to lower the water level and to keep the site from flooding.
The 65-foot deep wells removed 20,000 gallons of water per minute from the ground.
On November 26, 1988, they set eyes on the Arabia for the first time. Four days later, its precious cargo started to emerge, including beautiful china, much of it from Britain, including Wedgwood and Davenport.
Mud had preserved the yellow packing straw.
Incredibly, pickles they salvaged were still fresh and sweet, perfume still fragrant and Champagne still bubbling.
The prevailing mystery though is still, what happened to 40 barrels of bourbon that were on board the Arabia?
Did they just float away — or are they still out there somewhere. It’s described as “the best kept secret of the State of Missouri”.
Today, the Arabia Steamboat Museum is a living time capsule of life on the American frontier in the mid-19th century.
It is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artefacts in the world.
In 1991 the Arabia’s cargo was transformed into the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
Even now, only two-thirds of the cargo has been cleaned and restored, which means more treasures await display in the years to come.
If you’re fortunate, as I was, one of the family will be on hand to relate first hand their incredible adventure.
Seven thousand cigars survived, millions of coloured beads, l5,000 boots and shoes, thousands of candles, 34,000 buttons, pins, needles and hairgrips, as well as exquisite men’s and ladies clothing. The list is endless, the display breathtaking.
Even the skeleton of the Arabia’s mule was discovered tethered and bridled, and can be seen in the museum.
The dig cost $1m and the museum $500,000 to set up.
But the family still aren’t satisfied . . . they’re working on another project to unearth the Malta that sunk in 1841.
And don’t bet against them succeeding and establishing a museum even bigger and better than the present one.
The Jewish community of Kansas today numbers about 20,000, served by up to 20 synagogues of various denominations.