By Eilene Lyon
I spent a huge chunk of time last year learning about western river steamboats for the first section of my book. In it, a group of Indiana farmers travel by steamboat from Cincinnati to New Orleans on their way to California. So, on my way home to Colorado from Indiana, I made a point of stopping in Kansas City, Missouri, to see the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
Lucky for me, I managed to get in a small tour group minus the school kids (sorry kids, I like a little more sedate atmosphere when viewing a museum – and elbow room). One of the men who discovered and excavated the Arabia talked with us after we viewed the documentary about how they had done it. I asked him what salt pork was like (an entire pig was stuffed into a barrel and gradually turned to a yellowish lard – “nasty stuff!” he said). And I also wondered if he considered looking for more buried steamboats. He replied that they’d found eleven so far!
Unlike other museums, he encouraged us to take as many photos as we wished (no flash). So, I took pictures of everything. I was impressed with the quality, and quantity, of merchandise they uncovered. Most of it was new at the time (1856), destined for merchants up the Missouri River to be sold to pioneers on the frontier. We might think of people from the 1850s making do with poor quality and low-technology goods, but in some cases I’d have to say they had better products than we do today with our cheap, plastic substitutes. Things really were made to last back then. You couldn’t just go down to Walmart and get a replacement.
One of the features of the museum is a layout built to the dimensions of the main deck of the Arabia. There are parts of the original steam boiler, and a rebuilt sidewheel, in motion. It was a great way to get a feel for the boat I was writing about that was only slightly larger than the Arabia, and also a sidewheeler.
It was great to look at the artifacts, because it answered some questions I had about what people had back then. Did they have toothbrushes? Yes! There they were, nice wooden toothbrush handles, minus the bristles. Matches, ditto. Unfamiliar items are helpfully labeled: plug tobacco, curry combs, bed keys, saw braces, lice combs, and barrel spigots.
Artifact restoration is ongoing and there’s a viewing area where you can watch the process in action. There were 200 tons of merchandise hauled out of the Arabia’s hold, and more goes on display all the time. There’s even a portion of the stern of the boat on display. The story of what it took to preserve it is amazing – be sure to go and found out more about it!