Treasures of Art and History

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June 22nd 2011
Published: March 16th 2012
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An entire room of metal goods from the Arabia

Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia

Today was my day in Kansas City.

My first site was the Treasures of the Steamboat Arabia Museum.

This private attraction tells the story of three men; Bob, Greg, and Dave Hawley; who went looking for buried treasure and found something else entirely.

In the 1830s, the Missouri River was a treacherous place to be a steamboat pilot.

The river changed course constantly, leaving lots of shallow spots to run aground and underwater hazards.

The most difficult of all were snags, tree trunks hidden under water.

Overall, at least eight hundred steamboats sank in the river.

Since the river kept changing course, many of those steamboats are now buried under land near the river rather than water.

The men had the idea of finding one of them with a valuable cargo and reclaiming it.

After much research in old documents, they made a list of potential targets.

One of them was the Arabia, which sank just outside Kansas City in 1856.

The Arabia is famous in Missouri River lore, mostly due to the dozens of barrels of valuable whiskey supposedly on board when it sank.

Rare treasureRare treasureRare treasure

French perfume, personal jewelry, and valuable housewares from Arabia passengers.
managed to find the boat in 1988.

The bigger problem was digging it out.

The water table in the area is high due to the river, so any hole becomes a giant quicksand pit.

They ultimately brought in a dozen high powered water pumps to suck water out of soil faster than it could diffuse in.

These worked, and they found boat and cargo deep in the mud.

As the cargo was released from its grave, they realized the treasure they had wasn’t what they originally looked for.

Arabia did not have any gold or even whiskey on board.

What it did have was a large and nearly complete picture of life on the frontier, amazingly preserved.

The Missouri had quickly buried the sunken steamboat with silt, so nothing had rotted.

They found material like rubber, medicine, and food that ordinarily never survives.

They decided to create the museum to preserve and show it all.

The first part of the museum has a film discussing finding the boat.

I felt it celebrated the people involved more than what they found,
Extremely rare treasureExtremely rare treasureExtremely rare treasure

Food preserves found in the Arabia; over a century and a half old and look nearly new!
but this is understandable given that nobody involved was a professional historian.

At the end of the film, one of the adventurers came out and said a few words about the project.

They talked about how exciting it was, finding item after item in the dirt.

After the film come the artifacts.

Arabia was a supply boat.

At the time she went down, she was carrying supplies for country stores throughout western Missouri and eastern Nebraska territory.

People likely risked starvation on the frontier due to the loss.

Supply boats did not have much in the way of conventional treasure, however.

What little they found is shown in the first room.

Arabia had ten items of jewelry, likely personal effects of passengers.

It had a total of six coins.

They found a case of pristine Wedgwood dishes from England.

Finally, they found a rare Native American trading blanket, the most valuable item on the steamboat.

The real treasure is shown in the rest of the museum, the everyday things used on the frontier.

There are uncountable numbers of bolts, nails, locks, and keys.

There are nearly uncountable numbers of axe heads, saw blades, hammers, and knives.

There are cookware, utensils, and plates.

They found a complete set of carpenter’s tools.

They found wagon wheels, and stacks of lumber.

Arabia had a cache of items from the era that are rarely found intact, because they decay or wear out over time.

Anything plant based mostly disappeared in the water, but the rest survived.

They found wool shirts and silk cloth.

They found wax candles that are distorted but still recognizable.

They found bottles of perfume imported from France.

They found bottles of medicine.

They found cans and bottles of preserved food products, with the food intact.

Most importantly, they found the only examples of rubber combs and buttons that exist from that era.

Only one barrel of alcohol was found on the ship.

It was a barrel of ale.

Water had seeped in and ruined the drink.

Life on a Steamboat

The last part of the museum is a reconstruction of the ship’s main deck.

They pulled
Arabia paddlewheelArabia paddlewheelArabia paddlewheel

One of the paddlewheels of the steamboat Arabia
out much of the structure along with the cargo.

The boilers were located in the middle of the ship, with a complex connection to the paddle wheels.

Unlike the rear wheels used on the Mississippi, the wheels for the shallow Missouri were on the side.

Arabia could float in only four inches of water.

The boilers and paddle wheels in the exhibit are original.

The display also has the snag log that sank the ship.

The display talks about life on the ship.

For the crew, the work was hard, dangerous, and exciting.

The highest paid member was the pilot, who had to navigate the constantly shifting channel.

A good pilot was well worth the thousand or more dollars a month it took to get him.

The second highest paid was the captain, who usually had a share of the boat ownership.

Deck hands and stewards got significantly less.

As an extra insult, most had to sleep on the floor of the mess.

For first class passengers, the steamboat was basically a floating hotel.

For everyone else, they spent their entire time on the deck,
Underwarter parkingUnderwarter parkingUnderwarter parking

The Nelson Atkins parking garage, built underneath a reflecting pool.
including sleeping.

Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

After Arabia, I wanted treasure of a different kind, artwork.

The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is yet another comprehensive regional art museum.

Like others, I enjoyed most the parts that make it unique.

The first thing is one of its buildings.

The original museum building was the standard neoclassical edifice.

Stephen Holl designed a long and thin addition, with long sweeping corridors, narrow galleries, and white walls.

It works pretty well.

Sculptor Jeff Koons then added three large sculptures of shuttlecocks that have come to symbolize the museum.

They are located on either side of the Stephen Holl building, as though it was the net.

The parking garage is worth a mention.

The garage is composed of concrete slabs, which are standard for this sort of thing.

The ceiling slabs all have a wave pattern.

Periodically, skylights cast unusual wavy shadows on the floor.

Climb out of the garage to realize that a reflecting pool was built directly over the garage.

The design makes it look like the cars are under water.

It works fairly well.


A giant Shuttlecock sculpture by Jeff Koons, the symbol of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art.

As for the art, the museum has a little bit of a lot of movements.

As always, I wanted more afterward.

The central staircase is worth seeing, for the murals of the traditional art of various continents.

They can’t compare to the John Singer Sargent murals as the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but they were still pretty nice.

The one big highlight is American Art.

Several of the artists who were active in the American Scene movement (see Having an Art Attack) trained in Kansas City, and the museum has a large amount of their art.

One room has witty scenes of rural life from Thomas Hart Benton.

Another has more straightforward realism from Grant Wood.

Another room had varying quality paintings from a number of local artists.

I enjoyed the visit.

As some people know, Kansas City is the headquarters of Hallmark.

They have a museum showing how their greeting cards have evolved over the years.

I ultimately decided the place would send me into sugar shock, and skipped it.

Country Club Plaza

Instead, I went and saw art of a different
Country Club PlazaCountry Club PlazaCountry Club Plaza

Belive it or not, this is part of a shopping plaza!

In 1921, developer J.C. Nichols built an outdoor shopping area in the middle of a field far from downtown, a truly daring move.

He called it Country Club Plaza.

The city has since grown around it.

The center likes to call itself the first outdoor mall.

Nichols gave the area a distinctive look by patterning all the architecture after southern Spain.

The buildings are arranged around plazas, all of which have sculpture fountains.

There are even more sculptures on the buildings and road crossings.

The place is so well known for its sculpture that the information center has an art guide as well as the standard shopping guide.

Most of the sculpture is either realism or copies of Old Masters.

Modern malls have tried to include sculpture in their design, but none to the extent this one does.

I spent an enjoyable hour wandering around.

The plaza is unusual in one other way.

Most modern malls are isolated by sprawling parking lots.

The design of Country Club Plaza hides the parking inside buildings and alleys, so the plaza is integrated into the surrounding streets.

I wish
Ruth statue in Country Club PlazaRuth statue in Country Club PlazaRuth statue in Country Club Plaza

Statue of Ruth, from the Bible book of the same name, in Country Club Plaza.
modern mall developers would think along these lines.

After Country Club Plaza, I experienced one of Kansas City’s other distinctive features, the garden roads.

In the early 1900s, Kansas City was a center of the City Beautiful movement.

Born of the same philosophy that spawned the Beautiful Schools (see Big Architecture in a Small City), it held that the cure for the ills of rapid industrialization was filling cities with parks.

Kansas City created a series of long linear parks along roadways, and filled these parks with fountains.

Kansas City, in fact, has the highest number of fountains in the United States.

Sadly, the roads have not become the zone of tranquility their designers intended; the heavy traffic sees to that.

The garden road ended when I crossed into the other Kansas City, the one in Kansas.

I ended up here because I needed more supplies, and this was the most convenient spot to get them.

For what it’s worth, the only indication of being in another state is the crossing of ‘Stateline Avenue’.

This is also the only time I’ll be in Kansas the entire trip; Dorothy would be
J.C. Nicols FountainJ.C. Nicols FountainJ.C. Nicols Fountain

One of many fountains in Kansas City, this one is in a park across from the place built by its namesake, Country Club Plaza
so disappointed with me 😊

I had dinner tonight at one of Kansas City’s best barbeque restaurants, Gates BBQ.

Kansas City is the third of the four American barbeque meccas, along with Lexington (see Pigs and Tobacco), Memphis (see A Little Slice of Heaven), and central Texas.

What makes Kansas City unique is that barbeque here means beef, not pork, smothered in tangy sauce.

The restaurant had a sauce bar where patrons can mix their own!

The meal was pretty good.

Having eaten at three areas so far, I can say that I like Lexington style the best.

North Carolina barbeque is for the purist: meat, light seasoning, and nothing else.

I like this style because it brings out the flavor of the pork with nothing getting in the way (and much less messy too).

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 29


Only gold on shipOnly gold on ship
Only gold on ship

The only gold found on the Steamboat Arabia
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Printers type

Someone lost a valuable purchaser when this went down.
Wood and ropeWood and rope
Wood and rope

Frontier items rarely found intact

Frontier items rarely found intact

Fiber items from the frontier are rarely found intact

Leather frontier items rarely found intact

The only rubber items from the early 1830s ever found intact. Shown under very low light to limit decay.

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