More from KC

More from KC


As we stood outside Union Station in Kansas City, waiting for the streetcar, I noticed these great little - I don't know what to call them - metal models of hybrid transport.  They were perched on the streetcar stop shelter, on poles in the flower beds, here and there and I can give no further details because I can't find any link or reference to them at all.  But I rather liked the concept...


We were heading to see the Steamship Arabia, which had come a cropper in the Missouri River in 1856.  The docents at the Arrow Rock Visitor centre had recommended we take a look at the museum here and described it in such a way that, in spite of it being the end of a long, hot day in the city, we all felt it was a must-see.


I hadn't a clue about what had happened or what we were likely to see, imagining something like the Mary Rose or the Vasa.  So my first surprise was to find that the Arabia hadn't been lifted from the river at all, but had been retrieved from the middle of a field!  Over the years, the Missouri River changed its course due to erosion and as a result, the sunken steamship had been there buried 45 feet deep under a Kansas cornfield for over a hundred years.


In the late 1980s, a team began to work on excavating the wreck and here in the museum was an exhibit of what they found.  We began in the hall where the broken hull was centre stage.


All the metal engineering of the huge engine was intact and there were detailed explanations of what was where.


Alongside the story of the excavation and the conservation was the "snag" - the hefty tree branch or root which, for want of a better term, had "tripped the Arabia up" on that fateful day in September 1856, just 6 miles west of Kansas City. 


Linking nicely to the theme of our 2018 Road Trip, steamships like the Arabia were carrying immigrants and cargo on the first stage of their journey west.  This display focused on the many people following Brigham Young on the Mormon trail; just a few of those making use of the riverboats to reach the western frontier.


Alongside here was a small exhibit of the kind of china and pottery they found when excavating the wreck.


Next to it was a similar case showing the other kinds of things retrieved: glass bottles, sewing items, perfume and spectacles.  But interesting though this was, the people at Arrow Rock had described something altogether more exciting.  I'd expected more - I mean, surely there were more human tales to tell, especially since the only death on board as a result of the accident had been a mule...   Feeling ever so slightly disappointed, we turned the corner into the next room.


Oh my word....  The vast collection of things that had been on board the Arabia were assembled in one huge "warehouse" of a room, laid out in glass cases and shop-style windows.


Here were the hundreds and hundreds of things needed to build a new country: locks and keys, tools and metal fixings, door handles and hinges...


And shoes.  More shoes than you could imagine, for men, women and children.  These were being carefully dried and conserved in a laboratory adjacent to the store display.


Please, forgive me this dreadful photo, but I wanted to share how vast the wealth of leather goods was, and this was only part of the collection.  For as one of the museum staff commented, there's a limit to how many shoes visitors want to see.  Except...well, I must be different, because I really loved seeing all those serried ranks of shoes and for me, the more the better.  


At this point too, you might notice I haven't used the phrase "pairs of shoes", because in 1856 shoes didn't come in pairs and there was no such thing as a right or left shoe.  So although in the display, most were arranged in twos, look closely and you'll notice they are identical.


Next came the textiles, carefully cleaned and restored where necessary.  Bolts of woollen cloth - the cotton fabric didn't survive - plus clothes of the time, socks and hats and warm coats.  I think many of these were intended as goods for sale rather than personal belongings.


Oh, and there were buttons.  Thousands of them!


In fact, in this pretty awful photo, you can not only see how the bowls of buttons lined the sill of the "shop window" display, but also get the unintended reflection of the laboratory where the leather and textile goods were being freeze dried and restored.


I suspect many were hoping to find unopened bottles of spirits and this case displayed some of that kind of thing.  Except many contained perfume, bottled fruits, patent medicines and oil.


This area, laid out like a frontier store, contained all the household goods a family might need once they settled into a new home.  China, cutlery and other small items that might have been left behind to lighten the load for the journey west.


Oh yes, the Arabia had plenty of packages of tableware on board, ready for sale to the new, expanding market in the West.


It being 1856, many everyday items were made of metal, too.  I really loved how these collections had been displayed and could have spent longer there, drawing and admiring the shapes of repeat patterns!


As I retraced my steps there was one small display I'd missed, showing how far some of these goods had already travelled.  The buttons and beads were mostly from a European source and the beads in particular were of great value as trading goods for the Native Americans.  Thinking about it, how weird that a box of buttons that had been made in France ended up beneath a cornfield in Missouri as a result of a shipwreck...


We were still enjoying the displays in the store when the announcement came that the museum was about to close.  Making our way back to the entrance hall, we could at last appreciate the size of the Arabia, watching the paddle wheel turning in the lobby, about two storeys in diameter.  What a great exhibition!

Here's the website with more details and the full story.



Over the hill and far away

Over the hill and far away

Pink and still perky

Pink and still perky