Essential Pittsburgh
6:12 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Pittsburgh's Lost Steamboat Serves as an Accidental Time Capsule

How did a 19th century steamboat made in Pittsburgh wind up perfectly preserved in a Kansas cornfield? This is just one of many questions that emerges from the story told by Leslie Przybylek, lead curator for the Treasures of the Arabia Exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center. The Arabia is known as Pittsburgh’s lost steamboat and serves as an accidental time capsule. In its hull, were dozens of hats, shoes, pants, even edible food stuffs, all more than 150 years old.

In bringing the exhibit to Pittsburgh, Przbylek has been working with the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, where the excavated items are normally on display. She explained how the boat ended up in that cornfield.

“The Missouri river used to be notoriously fickle. It used to change its course. Today it’s much more of a controlled river. But at the time after the boat sank, it literally didn’t just sink into the water, it sank really into the muddy bottom of the river. And over time as the river channel shifted, the Missouri has shifted so much that people that at one point were on the Missouri side ended up in Kansas and vice-versa. It ended up in what was part of the old river channel, but the old river channel was under what had become a cornfield.”

The river shifting channels did more than just place the boat, it also helped preserve the items perfectly.

“One of the crucial details is that the boat was still under the water table. So while it was under the ground and under this cornfield it was still in water, which is partially what helped preserve the objects that were on the boat. Imagine it as almost the equivalent of being in stasis. They were cold, it was a very consistent climate. Water, as part of the chemical process, water helped to preserve these things in a sense. So by the time someone truly found this material and dug it up there were things that were in a remarkable stage of preservation.”