Arts & Culture
2:41 pm
Fri April 25, 2014

Ship Sinks In A River, But It's Found In A Cornfield

The excavation site of the Arabia
The excavation site of the Arabia
Credit Senator John Heinz History Center

Ships sink.

They crash or capsize, and are usually never seen again, but that’s not the case with the Arabia, which sank in the Missouri River in the latter half of the 19th century—found 130 years later in a corn field.

Starting Saturday, visitors to the Senator John Heinz History Center will be able to see nearly 2,000 artifacts recovered from the once lost steamboat that was built in Pittsburgh in 1853.

History center President Andy Masich said the boat gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like in the 1800’s.

“The Arabia is a time capsule of Pittsburgh history when Pittsburgh was the gateway to the west 150 years ago,” he said. “There are things onboard this boat that, well, we never thought we’d see again.”

The boat sank Sept. 5, 1856 after hitting a submerged walnut tree one mile from Parkville, a small town just outside Kansas City, taking with it about 200 tons of cargo. All 130 passengers and crew members made it to shore. The only casualty: a mule.

More than 1 million pieces were retrieved from the boat, including everything from “pre-fabricated homes to coats, hats, shoes, boots, bolts of fabric, even pickles still green in the jars,” according to Masich.

The Arabia was discovered about 30 years ago by members of the Hawley and Mackey families.

An artist recreation of the Arabia
An artist recreation of the Arabia
Credit Artist Gary Lucy

Reading about the boat’s demise in an 1856 newspaper, David Hawley set out with maps and a metal detector. Tracing the old river route on a modern map, Hawley found himself in a cornfield waving his metal detector back and forth until he knew he found something big.

“It’s like the boat sinks and remained untouched and undiscovered for 132 years, and when it came back into the atmosphere and into the light of day, it looked just like it did the day it sank,” Hawley said. “It’s like time travel.”

After getting the rights to unearth the boat and its contents in 1988, the families started excavating.

“With frozen, hard ground, we began to dig,” Hawley said. “We reached the boat in December…we were finished by mid-February. By that time, we had found 4,000 shoes and boots, clothes, tools, dishes, food products, and began at that point to prepare for a museum.”

The families were surprised to find the boat and its contents perfectly preserved 45 feet underground. Because the artifacts were encased in mud with no exposure to oxygen, all metal and iron objects looked brand new, according to Hawley.

“We would find barrels that still were filled with butter that you could still eat and jars of pickles you could eat,” he said. “Even the iron, without oxygen, would not rust, so pocketknives you could open and cut with scissors and all these tools had no rust whatsoever on them.”

But some artifacts were missing. In 1856, the Arabia was loaded with rifles meant for abolitionist John Brown during the Boarder War between Missouri and Kansas over slavery. According to Masich, the weapons were discovered and stolen by pro-slavery forces just weeks before the boats sinking.

Masich said the museum was able to track down the weapons using serial numbers.

“We brought them back together here for the Arabia exhibit. This is the first time they will have been together, along with the pickles, coats, hats, shoes, boots, all the cargo of the Arabia in 150 years.”

The artifacts returned to Pittsburgh in partnership with the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, which opened in 1991.

“Treasures of the Arabia” will remain at the Heinz History Center until January 2015.