When you think of a shipwreck, what comes to mind? An ancient freighter piling onto a solitary spike of rock out of sight of land? A Gloucester fisherman losing a battle with The Perfect Storm on the Grand Banks.? A full-rigged sailing vessel foundering on an uncharted South Pacific reef in the 19th century?
I’ll bet Kansas didn’t come to mind.
The Missouri River that claimed the 170-foot sidewheeler, Arabia, is as treacherous as any ocean. A muddy river known to be “too thick to drink and too thin to plow,” meanders east across Kansas and Missouri before joining the Mississippi. The seasonal overflow of her flooded banks has flattened the land for several miles to the left and right, allowing the river’s course to shift several miles as the years tick by.
While it may seem that trees are growing in the river, it is the river that has moved on the treed land, setting the stage for the Arabia’s death. The trunk of one large tree in the path of the river rotted away, leaving a stump and deep roots. Time and the insistent river scoured the river bottom until the stump tilted over and aimed like a spear at the heart of unsuspecting vessels.
The Arabia was born in 1853 in a shipyard in Pennsylvania, and wended her way on the Ohio River to her Kansas home. On September 5, 1858, while bound up river carrying passengers and 200 tons of cargo for 17 frontier stores and trading posts, Arabia met her fate.
Navigating westward into the mid-afternoon sun, the pilot’s ability to read the water was compromised, and he steered his ship onto the lethal snag. The ship’s planking and timbers, pierced by the husky stump, gave way. The ship was slow to fill with water. It took the rest of the afternoon for the hull to flood and the ship to sink to the second deck. Time enough for every passenger to be rowed ashore, but not enough time to rescue any cargo. By the following morning the upper deck was awash, and only the pilothouse and stacks were visible.
The Arabia settled into the soupy mud with her cargo of dishware, eye glasses, inkwells, food bottles, medicines, utensils, bells, wrenches, pocket knives, clocks, clothing, perfume and many more necessities of life on the frontier.
Salvaged items displayed at Steamship Arabia Museum
The Arabia kept on sinking until the river bottom swallowed the entire vessel–there to remain for 130 years until David Hawley sleuthed out her location–half mile from the banks of the river and beneath 45 feet underground.
When you think of a ship salvage operation, hardhat and scuba divers come to mind along with barges cranes and the deep-water submersible vessel, ALVIN.
But when a ship is buried under 45 feet of Kansas farmland, bulldozers, backhoes, and cranes are called for. And when the water table is only 10 feet underground, huge pumps are needed as well.
Once the site was located, the Hawley family spent the summer assembling equipment and installing 20 pumps 65 feet into the earth, each capable of pulling a thousand gallons a minute from the water table.
Over the four months in the winter of 1988, the excavation exposed the ship, so that the Hawley boys could remove the entire 200-ton cargo, along with one 28’ diameter paddle wheel, the ship’s boilers, and the stern section of the hull.
On Feb 11, 1989, the recovery ceased. Equipment was removed from the site and pumps were turned off. Within hours the site filled with water.
Then the long process of sorting, cleaning, and preserving the artifacts began.
Although the original intention was to sell the salvaged cargo, the family decided it should belong to posterity, and the treasures are now displayed in an inviting museum.
Below are a few of the pictures taken at the museum.
Chip Levine, David Hawley, and AL Levenson
And two links to websites with many more.