Artifacts from the steamboat Arabia are on loan to a Pittsburgh museum

05/31/2014 8:54 PM

06/03/2014 2:23 PM

About 2,000 prized pieces of Kansas City history have left town — but only temporarily.

Those artifacts from the steamboat Arabia, which hit a snag and sank 158 years ago in the Missouri River, are being displayed in a Pennsylvania museum through Jan. 4.

It marks the first time that owners of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in the City Market have let this many pieces of their collection escape at one time. But it’s appropriate, they say, that the Arabia’s first sizable traveling exhibit has landed in Pittsburgh.

After all, the side-wheel steamer was built in Pittsburgh and Brownsville, Pa., three years before it sank near Kansas City on a voyage to equip frontier towns with tools, rifles, clothing, food and other goods. Many of the items in the 200 tons of cargo were manufactured in western Pennsylvania.

“Their theme is, ‘The Arabia has come home.’ Of course, we feel like it is already home,” said David Hawley, co-owner of the Kansas City-based museum.

Four workers from the John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh spent weeks selecting and packing items that two families of treasure hunters dug up more than a quarter-century ago, buried 45 feet in a muddy Kansas cornfield.

People in Kansas City call the recovered cargo the “largest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.”

People in Pennsylvania call their exhibit, which opened in late April, “Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.”

Visitors enter through a cornfield, where they see some of the first artifacts unearthed from the excavation site. Another section of the exhibit details the preservation process. And of course, there’s a re-creation of the Arabia’s lone casualty — a mule left tied to a post or rail.

“They took with them a lot of artifacts but still, when I walk through the Arabia, as the collection is so vast, I don’t even see a dent,” Hawley said. “If I had not known that the materials had been loaned, I would not have noticed.”

The moving crew took special care with each item, he said.

“They measured every artifact, took a photo of it, wrote a description of it and then passed it to the next person,” Hawley said.

Workers placed the artifacts in packing material inside archival boxes that were slid into bigger containers, each about 6 feet tall, on rollers, Hawley said.

“Their biggest challenge was getting these things past my mom,” he said. “We stood there, my mom and dad, as they loaded it onto the truck. As this truck pulls away, my mom turns to me and says, ‘Is it too late to call them back? Our babies have never been out on their own before.’”

To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to bburnes@kcstar.com.

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