Steamboat artifacts on display at Heinz History Center

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PITTSBURGH – For more than a century, buried treasure sat undisturbed below a Kansas cornfield.

And it wasn’t left there by a pirate.

Since a September night in 1856, the remains of the steamboat Arabia and its cargo were frustratingly out of reach from even the most determined relic-hunters. The steamboat, which was built in West Brownsville three years before, was impaled by a submerged walnut tree while it was traversing the turbulent Missouri River in Wyandotte County, Kan., and promptly sank. Though its 200 tons of cargo went with the boat to the bottom, and a mule perished, all 130 passengers were able to swim to safety. The Arabia was rapidly enveloped by the Missouri’s headlong currents, and it was then buried by the mud and silt that swirled relentlessly through the river. Over time, the Missouri shifted and the part of the waterway where the Arabia rested became a muddy field and, later, rich farmland where corn was harvested.

Though the steamboat era faded when the vessels were replaced by trains and other forms of transportation, the Arabia was never forgotten by adventurers who wanted to exhume it. Attempts were made in 1877 and 1897 that came to naught, and a more sophisticated, extensive effort staged over two years in the mid-1970s also foundered. Though the farmer whose land had been despoiled vowed that the Arabia would stay put, a family of amateur archaeologists in nearby Independence, Mo., convinced him that they should allow them to give it one more try.

After spending about $1 million, shipping a 100-ton crane up the river, and deploying pumps that removed up to 1,000 gallons of water per minute and wells that pumped out 20,000 gallons of water per minute, the ship, at long last, emerged.

They were able to remove chunks of it and many of the goods that were carried onboard. These became the basis for a museum that opened in Kansas City, Mo., in 1991. Now some of the material has returned to the east from whence it came thanks to the exhibit “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia,” which opened at the Sen. John Heinz History Center April 26 and will be there through the rest of this year.

“This is a time capsule of Pittsburgh history when it was a gateway to the west,” said Andy Masich, the history center’s president and chief executive officer.

Part of what makes the material recovered from the Arabia so remarkable is how well-preserved it all is. Because it was enfolded in an oxygen-free environment more than 30 feet below the surface, many objects were able to keep their just-new glow. Even the pickles and the champagne that were carried on the boat were still fit for human consumption (though the champagne was a little flat). Walking through “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat” is almost like stepping into an 1850s department store with its array of shoes, hats, cutlery, hardware, dishes and other goods.

“We found tubs of butter that still smelled fresh,” said David Hawley, a member of the family that found the boat.

At the time the Arabia sank, steamboats traveled up and down the country’s rivers, including the Ohio and the Mississippi, as the expanding country moved westward. The ships, 40 percent of which were manufactured in Western Pennsylvania, were battered around and had relatively short shelf lives – most only stayed afloat for about five years. The steamboat’s preeminence lasted for only about 30 years, and the discoveries unearthed from the Arabia “really contribute to our understanding of the western steamboat industry,” according to Leslie Przbylek, a curator at the Heinz History Center.

The Kansas the Arabia sailed into on its last voyage was a tempestuous place, thanks to border skirmishes taking place between pro- and-anti-slavery forces sparked by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed states to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. The flare-ups of violence were a precursor to the Civil War, which began a little less than five years later. This background is also explored in “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat.”

Also in the exhibit: A replica of the Steamboat Arabia’s 28-foot paddle wheel; interactive stations for young visitors; and a section detailing the efforts to excavate the boat.

Walking through the exhibit and seeing all the 160-year-old goods as spiffy as they day they were crafted is “like shaking hands with the pioneers,” Przbylek said.

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