Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Steamboat Arabia Museum

In Kansas City in the Farmers Market area, there is a museum devoted to a steam ship that sank on the Missouri River back in the 1850s when the Louisiana Territory was opened for settlers. My early relative, Dr. Augustus Thorspecken was part of that movement West.

The Arabia was a steam ship that was packed full of supplies for the general stores that needed to be outfitted on the river. When a tree falls in the river, the trunk would sink and flow down river a bit creating a deadly spear just under the water. The Arabia struck one of these trees and quickly sank. Passengers rushed to the end of the boat above water. The one life boat was taken by the crew who quickly paddled away fearing that the water boilers might explode when they hit the cold water. When the boilers didn’t explode they sheepishly paddled back and started saving passengers.

The track of the Missouri river would change each year based of the flooding and flow of silt. A family became obsessed about finding the wreck which might not actually be in the water itself. They searched the surrounding land and in a corn field their electro-manometer found metal as they walked up a row of corn. Each time they hit metal they put down a flag and soon they had the outline of the steamer.

They got permission to excavate the site and pumped out the water as they dug below the water level.  Old reports showed that the Arabia had been found once before and the treasure hunters gave up after only finding a box of boots. The treasure most people hoped for were the many gallons of bourbon that was being transported in wooden barrels. The booze was never recovered but inside the ship was like finding the 1850s equivalent of a Wal-Mart. Every day of the excavation was like Christmas. They found china ware, utensils, clothing, hardware, and every conceivable daily necessity for life on the frontier. There were plenty of beads which were intended as trade items with the Indians.

A mule was tied up on the bow of the steamer. An account of the day said that the owner tried to save the mule but it was so stubborn that it would not move towards safety. When the ship was found that mule was found to be still tied to a column of the boat. The more than 100 year old lie was unearthed.

At first the excavators thought they would sell off items to profit from their find, but then they realized they had to keep the collection all together as a museum. Only a fraction of the items have been preserved and they are still conserving items to this day. The family owned a refrigeration business and that is where everything is stored until it can be preserved. In an incubator several dozen shoes were being treated and other items were in storage containers pumped full of nitrogen.

I simply sketched the steamer boats paddle wheel which had been restored. Original pistons and cylinders powered the wheel. Wandering the museum I got a good feel for what life on the Midwest frontier might have been like. This ship that sank and was preserved in the anaerobic slime has become a true time capsule of what life was like in the 1850s.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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