After the Civil War the lands west of the Mississippi River blossomed with settlement. Americans hungry for land of their own traveled west to claim plots for themselves. Once the menfolk got things started, they would send for their wives and children who often made the trip by river boat. Building supplies and hardware for the new homes and development were also shipped via boat. They also brought all the supplies needed for daily life that could not be made by the farmers themselves. These boats offered one stop shopping; the 1865 version of Walmart. The steam boats were powered by wood fires; the wood often came from trees growing along the river banks. Once many of them were cut down the banks began to erode and many stumps and tree bottoms began to bob in the rivers. These snags were not a problem for those traveling down stream, but a boat going upstream could easily impale itself and sink. Even without these hazards the rivers were hard to navigate. They meandered and readily changed course.
In 1865 the Arabia left St Louis loaded to the gills with supplies and had plans to make sixteen stops reuniting families and dropping off 22 tons of cargo. Just north of Kansas City, she hit a snag and began to sink. The passengers were all rescued, but the boat sank so fast none of the cargo was saved. It is believed that over 400 such boats sank on the Missouri River alone.
In 1987 four local men with too much time on their hands, decided to become treasure hunters. Because the path of the river is controlled today, the spot where the Arabia sank is now in the middle of a corn field. But digging down to it was no easy task. It was buried under fifty feet of silt and the last twenty feet were an aquifer, containing fresh water from the river. The men ended up using twenty pumps that ran 24/7 to expose the boat buried in the mud. Heavy earth moving equipment was utilized when possible, but once the boat was found, work proceeded slowly by hand. Although their original plan was to sell what they found, the fact that they found so much stuff that reflected what life was like in the 1850's, lead them to decide to keep the collection intact and create a museum.
The amount of material they have cleaned and restored and the quantity that still remains to be rejuvenated boggles the mind. They opened the museum with 250 pieces and have been adding to it ever since. The tools and building supplies hinted at the many folks who were left stranded and homeless when that boat sank. The carpenter who lost his entire set of tools was unable to resume his trade. Some items were a surprise. A large collection of rubber boots and shoes, among the earliest manufactured by Goodyear, were found in the hold. Modern restoration techniques have enabled the museum to preserve cloth items such as hats and leather shoes. Bottles of preserved pickles and pie fruit kept the contents so fresh, they could be eaten today. Perfume bottles still contain the precious fragrance some frontier lady had chosen as part of her precious cargo.
We were so impressed by this collection and even more so when two of the original treasure hunters appeared to answer our questions in person. They are old men now, but still as excited by their find as they were the day they discovered it. To finish the excavation they had to mortgage their businesses and borrow heavily and they thanked us for buying the tickets that enabled them to repay all their debts.
After this impressive glimpse into yesteryear, we retired to the parking lot of a local casino where we will spend a free night and repay their hospitality enjoying the buffet. This casino is not owned by an Indian tribe and has some features we have not seen before. Usually you cannot get to anything you want to do in a casino without walking past a myriad slot machines, but here they are clustered in the middle and surrounded by restaurants. We were surprised how many children we saw until we came to the children's play room. I don't usually think of casinos as family friendly, but this one surely is.