Buried Treasure from 1856 America: Part One

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After 132 years in mud, the champagne still fizzed when uncorked. It tasted fine, as did the pickles preserved before Lincoln was president, and none of the 20th-century treasure hunters got sick from this antique food or drink. The French perfume bottles still held a sweet, floral fragrance. You can dab on a reproduction at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, where I went with fellow attendees of the Women Writing the West Conference.

In 1856, when the steamship Arabia snagged on one of the many fallen trees near the banks of the Missouri River, the impact frightened its passengers, including women and children traveling to reunite with their husbands and fathers on the frontier. Children fell in the river. Although all the people were rescued, the steamship and its 200 tons of cargo sank into the river silt immediately.

The cargo, intended for stores at the edge of the frontier, is a gateway to the past. Most of the 200 tons was intact. More than two tons of metal tools and hardware were recovered.

Kansas City Thursday 017 (800x600)

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Skeleton keys, keyholes and white doorknobs in the foreground.

The website of the Arabia Steamboat Museum, www.1856.com, states that this is the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. While buried in the mud for 132 years, the temperature remained constant and there was no oxygen, factors which helped preserve the items. Proteins like leather did not decompose. More than 4,000 boots and shoes were recovered, and when the Arabia sank with them, it may have created a shortage of footwear, a hardship for frontier families.

Bed keys for tightening ropes that supported mattresses.
Bed keys for tightening ropes that supported mattresses.
Trays for Calling Cards
Trays for Calling Cards
About 20% were luxury items, like the Davenport Ironstone in the foreground.
About 20% were luxury items, like the Davenport Ironstone in the foreground.

From cognac to wedding bands to two pre-fabricated homes, the recovered cargo is a buried treasure of historic significance.

The 400 barrels of Kentucky bourbon on board were never recovered.  None were found when an 1897 effort sent a chamber under water, and none when the entire steamship was unearthed 90 years after that, by five local business owners.  They speculate that the men on the Eclipse, which salvaged an engine from the Arabia shortly after it sank, might have helped themselves to “Kentucky’s finest.”

Those five Kansas City business owners discovered this steamship and its cargo in 1987-88. Finding  the Arabia started as a hobby and became a quest.  I will post that story next Thursday.