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Raise the Arabia!

t's said that at every bend in the

Missouri River, a steamboat is lying at the bottom, buried in the mud below the murky water. The captains who navigated the treacherous waters had to master the changing currents and shallow spots to avoid getting snagged by submerged tree limbs. No wonder many of the frontier-bound steamers didn't reach their final destinations.

Among those lying at the bottom of the river was the steamship Arabia, recently discovered by a group of private salvagers. The Arabia, like hundreds of its sister ships, sank between the 1820s and 1880s, the victim of a snag. Many more boats sank in this manner than from boiler explosions, which were more heavily reported during the heyday of the riverboat era.

The discovery of the Arabia, a top-of-the-line side-wheeler, adds new information to the sketchy knowledge so far gained from the only other successful Missouri River valley steamboat excavation. In the late 1960s, salvagers found the Bertrand, a large sternwheeler, in the Missouri's mud on federal property in the De Soto National Wildlife Refuge north of Omaha, Nebraska. The Bertrand sank in 1865 with a load of military cargo that included ammunition for army howitzers used in the Civil War.

The Arabia was uncovered last winter near Parkville, Missouri. Many salvagers had attempted to reach the boat over the years, but the team of five couples calling itself River Salvage Incorporated was the only group to find a way to retrieve parts of the hidden side-wheeler and its cargo. David Hawley of RSI says it's been a difficult process from the beginning. He calls it a lifetime effort to excavate the boat, preserve the artifacts, and establish a location to display the pieces.

The excavation was complicated by the changing course of the Missouri River, which over time left the boat covered by silt and water. The site, a half mile from the present river, is in Norman Sortor's soybean field. Three generations of Sortors have owned the property. Beaula Sortor says the family always knew the steamboat was there: "These people said with the equipment they have now, they were positive they could find it, and my husband said, if you want to try, fine."

Salvagers dug a series of wells around the Arabia and pumped water out 24 hours a day for several months. This system allowed them to dig about 45 feet down to the boat and remove the stern section, its rudder, three boilers, one of the paddle-wheels, and more than 100 tons of artifacts.

Newspaper accounts from the fall of 1856, when the Arabia sank, say that the steamship hit a snag in 12 feet of water about a mile from Parkville, Missouri, just outside of Kansas City. A report from the St. Joseph Commercial Cycle dated September 12, 1856, says, "We learn from passengers just up that the Arabia sunk last Tuesday evening about a mile below Parkville. The boat and cargo will be a total loss, as she is sunk to her hurricane deck. No lives were lost." But the boat sank so fast that the salvagers found the remains of a horse still saddled and bridled. The horse apparently was tied to the deck when the ship sank. In the panic of the wreck, those on board weren't able to set it free.

The Arabia began its journey in St. Louis with a load of cargo and about 40 families heading west to Omaha, Nebraska. Arabia's cargo, unlike the Bertrand's, contained mostly goods that reveal the story of westward expansion.

Early salvage efforts focused on barrels of Kentucky whiskey and gold reportedly on board. None of these was found. But the crew did uncover hundreds of thousands of items, including champagne and cognac, crates of butter and cheese, boot pistols, wool and silk fabrics, felt hats, leather boots, clothing, such building materials as nails and tools, prefabricated houses, glassware, tinware, pottery, china, bottles of medicine, and jars of food still intact.

Hawley, the head of the salvage team, researched the Arabia for several years before he and his partners attempted to excavate the boat. The group was unsuccessful in the recovery of another steamboat, the Missouri Packet, which sank in 1820 near Booneville, Missouri. The team finished that excavation in 1988. When they got to the boat, there was no cargo and the boat's timbers were in such disarray that there was nothing to recover. "You just don't know until you get there what you're going to find," Hawley said. "We're really lucky. We feel very fortunate to have gotten the kind of quality of cargo out of the Arabia that we did. "

When the Arabia was uncovered, the 185-foot-long boat looked as it did more than a century ago. The oak hull and pine deck had been preserved in the silt and water, where no air could reach them. Excavators have been working night and day since they pulled the cargo from the boat to keep the pieces from deteriorating. They're using watering tanks to soak the wooden items in a solution of polyethylene glycol. Jerry Mackey of the salvage operation says it's the same experimental process used in the Bertrand project: "Very little has been done in the area of fresh-water excavation. Mostly when you think of a boat, you're talking about salt water. There's a lot that's been done in that area, but it doesn't work in fresh water, necessarily, so we have a totally new process to do."

Artifacts from the Arabia are washed mainly with water, because other cleaning agents may be harmful. That lesson was learned from the Bertrand effort. The conservator for the Iowa project and a consultant on Arabia's stabilization efforts, Mayda Jensen, says the Arabia salvagers can benefit much from the mistakes made in the stabilization of the Bertrand artifacts: "We found that the less people did to some types of materials the better, like the canned foodstuffs, including pickles, which were bright green. Some of the jars found on the Bertrand were injected with formaldehyde to keep them from decaying, and those bottles have turned a gray-green. Those bottles that were just kept refrigerated are very vivid and bright, and haven't changed at all. "

The Arabia partners have set up a cooling area for perishable items, including food, liquor, and medicine. Workers have sealed each bottle with paraffin to prevent corks from sliding out and exposing the contents to oxygen. The salvagers estimate it will take a year just to catalog the artifacts.

Another major task was digging an 80 x 20 pit for the steamship's pieces. The Arabia must also be soaked in polyethylene glycol to prevent it from drying and deteriorating. So far, the partners have spent more than $700,000 on the Arabia. They plan to display some pieces of the steamboat, a paddlewheel, and the ship's contents in the Kansas City area by the end of the summer. But preservation efforts and work to gather historical information will continue for years.

It's one thing to salvage a steamboat-it's another to retrieve the hidden history from the project. The private partners are not archaeologists, and Joe Simmons, an archaeologist and research associate with the Institute of Archaeology at Texas A & M University, is concerned about the dig and conservation efforts. He'd like to see the salvagers develop detailed construction and configuration charts of the Arabia, especially of the hull. Simmons calls sunken shipwreck sites nonrenewable resources." If the Arabia is excavated properly, Simmons believes, it will provide information about life on the frontier for the common man; the Bertrand, on the other hand, offers a more military view of 1860s life.

Simmons says archaeology is not the handmaiden of history, as many have claimed. Instead, he says it is the confessor of history, highlighting the differences between plans and true steamboat construction and revealing intriguing facts from the past. "The potential for shipwrecks on almost every navigable body of water is enormous," Simmons says. He believes specialists in steamboat archaeology will emerge as more steamboats are sought and uncovered.

Conservation efforts on the Arabia will take up most of the salvagers' time for the next several months. But David Hawley says that after a museum is established, the lure of sunken treasure may tempt the group again. The crew members, who have located a few more vessels in the river valley, may take on another steamboat challenge.

Arabia's Cargo (partial list)

Many said the steamboat sank with bar- rels of whiskey and gold aboard. Although the excavators didn't find either, they did uncover the following:

* jewelry, including six gold wedding bands, earrings, and brooches

*8 one three-inch china doll, known as "Frozen Charlotte"

* hundreds of pieces of J. Wedgwood and Davenport china, including the "Cypress" and Friburg" patterns

* bottles of champagne, cognac, and wine and a barrel of ale

* jars of pickles, relish, and pie fruits

* wooden crates of butter and cheese

* felt and beaver hats

* bolts of fine silk, cotton, and wool

* ivory lice combs

* 48 flintlock rifles (from markings on the barrel, they were identified as 1855 Belgian-made guns and were used for trading with the Indians)

* thousands of buttons and Indian trading beads

* wire-rimmed eyeglasses

* parts of prefabricated houses

* powder flasks

* whale oil lamps

* glass vials of perfume

* leather goods, including buggy whips, saddles, and boots (there is no right or left because they were made to fit either foot)

* skeleton of a horse tied to the boat (the saddle was still draped around its ribcage, the bit in its mouth, and the bridle around its head)

* an 1856 penny (this was the last artifact taken from the Arabia, found lying on the boat's deck)
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Title Annotation:sidewheel steamboat salvaged from Missouri River
Author:Lohr, Kathy
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jul 1, 1989
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