The Arabia Steamboat Museum
A visit to the museum is a glimpse into the past. The Arabia’s collection reveals details of frontier life seen nowhere else. A museum tour is partially guided, introducing visitors to the Arabia’s history and sinking, with a short video presentation of the remarkable excavation.
The 10-ton stern section of the boat is on display, carefully preserved, with draft marks showing the boat’s depth in the water, and some original white paint still visible. A full-sized reproduction of the boat’s main deck shows visitors the grand scale of a steamboat, with the Arabia’s huge boilers and steam engine in place. A 28-foot paddle wheel turns in a pool of water, alongside the final resting place of the mule skeleton – the only life lost in the Arabia’s sinking.
The contents of the Arabia’s cargo hold can fascinate a visitor for hours. Case after case, window after window, 1856 comes to life in the everyday items recovered. Beautiful glass bottles illustrate the care taken in producing containers for ordinary contents such as liquor or ketchup. Small-mouthed bottles contain preserved fruits for pies, as well as bright green sweet pickles. They were still edible!
Fabrics and sewing supplies were needed by every frontier wife and mother to make clothing for herself and her family. Delightfully printed buttons from 1856 show us that pioneer clothing was not nearly as drab and dark as history books suggest with their black-and-white photographs. The buttons’ delicate patterns and vibrant colors would likely have matched the ladies’ cotton calico dresses. While the cotton fabric did not survive underground, the fabrics’ dyes did. The color of the mud filling the fabric boxes was yellow, blue, green and burgundy.
Perhaps the greatest surprise will be the tremendous volume of artifacts on display. There were 4,000 shoes and boots recovered, along with more than 3 million Indian trade beads, numerous sets of dishes & housewares, dozens of guns and knives, all manner of clothing items, and even two pre-fabricated homes. Yes, it was possible then to order a kit-house and have it delivered to the frontier.
This is a very small sample of the museum’s large and varied collection—and it is still a work-in-progress. Visitors can stop by the working preservation lab to learn how materials are cleaned and preserved. This painstaking process will take perhaps an additional 15 years to complete. To stabilize the items yet to be preserved, they are frozen in blocks of ice. New items are added and new displays created often, so each visit reveals new treasures.