Arabia Steamboat Museum receives a 194-year-old steam engine

11/22/2013 3:54 PM

11/22/2013 6:19 PM

Easy. Easy.

There.

How did workers deliver an approximately 5,000-pound, 19th-century steam engine to the Arabia Steamboat Museum on Friday morning?

With great care.

“We wanted to tell a broader story of steam on the river,” said David Hawley, whose family has operated the museum since 1991.

“This engine is the beginning of that story.”

The Hawleys retrieved the engine from a field near Arrow Rock, Mo., in 1987.

It once had powered the Missouri Packet, a 120-foot, 60-ton steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in 1820, one year before Missouri became a state.

Today, Hawley believes the artifact represents the oldest maritime steam engine known to exist in the United States. That makes it of interest to historians who, Hawley added, often only can speculate on the actual specifications of such power plants then used on the frontier.

“An engine like this has never been on display,” Hawley said.

Workers fabricated the cast iron engine in 1819 at the Prentice & Bakewell Air Foundry and Steam Engine Factory in Louisville, Ky.

For much of the time since the Hawleys recovered the engine, they have stored it at the Abilene, Kan., workshop of Joe Minick, a mechanic who helped restore the Arabia engine. On Friday, a crew from Haggard Hauling and Rigging of Kansas City unloaded the engine and used a forklift to maneuver it through the north door of the museum at 400 Grand Blvd.

The engine’s 1987 excavation proved a crucial moment for the family, said Flo Hawley, David’s mother.

“There wasn’t much cargo left from the Packet,” she said.

Still, she added, the family soon resolved to go forward with the recovery of the 171-foot Arabia, which sank in 1856 near Parkville.

The Arabia’s expensive excavation from a Kansas farm field yielded tons of well-preserved 19th-century cargo — china, tools, firearms, clothing and more. Today the collection annually draws thousands of tourists, students and historians, as well as museum professionals.

Next April, part of the collection will go on exhibit at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, near Brownsville, Pa., where workers assembled the Arabia in 1853.

On Friday, David Hawley wouldn’t say which had proved more challenging — getting the Packet’s engine out of the ground 26 years ago or easing it through the museum’s doorway with a few inches to spare on Friday.

“It was cold both times,” he said.

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