Steamboat Arabia proves a Missouri River treasure


They may have been the closest thing Kansas City had to Indiana Jones…if you remove all the snake business, outrunning natives with poison darts and defeating enemy armies.

Five men from the Metro area caught the treasure hunter bug. Instead of gold or silver doubloons, they sought an old steamboat that floated on the Missouri River in the 1800s.

The Steamboat Arabia hauled people and cargo up and down the wild (at that time) Missouri River. It made 14 trips on the river after being moved there from the Pennsylvania area.

On its final voyage, the steamboat left St. Charles, MO, en route north toward Omaha and Sioux City.


Along the Kansas City leg, the steamboat hit a “snag,” a piece of tree with roots dug into the river’s mud.


The Arabia sank fast after the snag cut through the ship’s bow, moving deep into the ship.

The passenger cabins stayed above the water. None of the almost 200 passengers died. Everyone was able to reach the decks and cabins above the water. Eventually, rescuers came from shore to get everyone to the river banks.

The boat eventually sank completely.

Years passed. The river shifted course through the years.

The Hawleys eventually became interested in treasure hunting. Bob Hawley, the patriarch, suggested he and sons Dave and Greg look for the Steam Arabia. Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell joined the group.

The five men searched records and locations for the possible spot of the steamboat.

Eventually, it was discovered in a farm field near Kansas City, Kansas.


In mid-1987, Dave Hawley located the wreckage.

The group worked during the following winter to excavate the Arabia. They used metal detectors to help locate the outline of the boat. They used a drill to help gauge the depth of the dig. Eventually, flags and chalk outlined the remains of the steamboat.

They had to work during the winter to avoid having the field flooded with river water.

As they dug, they had to create a channel to reroute ground water to the river.

They found their treasure chest. But, there wasn’t much there in the color of gold or silver.

But, what they found thousands of artifacts.


Before they started actually removing items, the group reached out for help from government and college organizations to ensure they protected them.

They ended up working with a Canadian federal research agency that showed the group how to clean and store artifacts.

The team thought they would sell what they found.

But, that thought evolved into sharing the story of the Steam Arabia with the public.


Thus, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened in 1991 in Kansas City’s City Market.

The museum is home to the world’s largest pre-Civil War artifact collection.

Exhibits include china, silverware, boots, clothes, weapons, and more.

The museum entrance has a life-sized working paddle wheel. It sits as one side of the full scale model of the main deck of the boat. The Steamboat Arabia was a side-paddle boat, which mean that two paddle wheels were used, one on each side of the boat.


As you start the tour, you get to see an actual piece of the main deck they excavated. The hull’s wood is maintained with a controlled “shower” nightly. A large curtain encircles the exhibit and a light coating of water showers the wood overnight.


There is a short film that gives a history of the steamboat and the excavation of it. Very interesting. Following the film, we met Bob Hawley, who was at the museum that day to greet visitors.


Millions of pieces of history are in the inventory. There are more than 3 million trade beads alone. These beads were used by traders to exchange with Native Americans for animal pelts and other items.

The entrance to the exhibit area has a few of the “Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia” on display – china, perfume and beads.


The cargo gallery shows barrels and buckets of items located on the boat. They included firearms, ammo, coffee pots and cups, as well as dishware.


The general store exhibit is truly interesting. The glass used in the window frames actually came from the Arabia.


Inside the general store are other items taken from the boat, including wooden matches.  Locks and inkwells are on display.


Perhaps the most interesting attraction is a shelf of pickles. Apparently, Jerry Mackey actually ate a pickle. He said it tasted Ok after more than a hundred years being buried.


The gallery includes yards of material, including red yarn. Woolen shirts, pants and other items, such as boots are on display.

A cool part of the museum is the life-sized replica of the main deck of the Steamboat Arabia. It stretches more than 171 feet long. It houses the actual steam tubes.


Visitors see the actual tree snag that caused the accident.

As you may recall, I previously said no passengers died during the accident. I should clarify. No humans died.

A mule was tied to a post and did not get freed. If so, it’s believed it would have swam safely to shore. The museum honors that mule with its remains lying n state on the deck.


On a sad note regarding the excavation team, Greg Hawley died in a car accident a few years ago. The museum has a memorial to him near the deck.


The Steamboat Arabia tells a great tale of life on the wild Missouri River during the mid-1800s. The items on display are very interesting to take in personally.

I recommend the museum if you’re in Kansas City for a day or weekend. It took us about an hour to view everything. You could spend more time if you wanted.

For more information on the Arabia Steamboat Museum, please visit its website at

Disclaimer: Thanks to the Kansas City Visitors and Convention Bureau for the complimentary tickets to the museum. All opinions and views are ours.