“How a Champagne-Laden Steamship Ended Up in a Kansas Cornfield”

That’s the fascinating headline to this article at Atlas Obscura.

Hawley and his intrepid team have quite the incredible passion: discovering and excavating steamboats from the 19th century that may have sunk in the Missouri, but now lie beneath fields of farmers’ midwestern corn. “Ours is a tale of treasures lost,” says Hawley. “A journey to locate sunken steamboats mystery cargo that vanished long ago.”

In 1988, Hawley and his crew uncovered the steamboat Great White Arabia, which sank in 1856 a few miles west of Kansas City. The discovery yielded an incredible collection of well-preserved, pre-Civil War artifacts. Hawley, along with his father, brother and two friends, unearthed over 200 tons of items, the equivalent of 10 container trucks. Many of these artifacts, from shoes to champagne bottles, are on display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City. Its tagline is “200 tons of treasure.”

While most rescued sunken treasure is heavily water damaged and covered in rust and barnacles, the cargo of the Arabia was in relatively pristine condition, about as immaculately preserved as the day she sank 160 years ago.

Now Hawley and his team are excavating another steamboat, again buried not underneath the waters of the Missouri, but in a field a few miles southwest.

The first mystery is, of course, how a boat that sank mid-river ends up buried in a field. The answer lies with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During the latter half of the 19th century, the Corps of Engineers undertook projects to forcibly alter the shape of the Missouri River. The plan was to bring the banks closer together, and by narrowing the width of the river, speed up the current, making boat passage much faster.

One such place was near Parkville, a few miles north east of Kansas City. It was here in 1856 that the Arabia sank after hitting a snag of a sycamore tree, sinking in minutes. As the course of the river was altered decades later, the steamboat became preserved not under the muddy waters of the Missouri, but in a corn field.

There’s more at the link.

Here’s a video report on the ship and its rediscovery.

I find the whole story absolutely fascinating.  The discovery dates back to 1988, and the museum to 1991, but I’d never heard of it until I read this article.  Next time I pass through Kansas City, I’ll have to make a point of visiting it.



  1. I have the Book on the Arabia find-amazing the state of preservation of the cargo due to being silted in so quick.The book had said that locals attempted to salvage what they could reach-but the Rivers currents covered it pretty fast.I would think this is a must see stop for a few Movie set crews looking for a close up on some actual items of that era. The other thing that strikes you is the level of production for all the goods -from thread spindles to tools,a Nation bustling with commerce.Im guessing most of it was coming from Northern factory's-an intersting window on eve of ACW.
    The River's then changed course yearly before the Corps Of Eng projects -look at Google Earth at all the old Bends now lakes,ponds or dried up over the centuries. A Lot of undiscovered wrecks all along there-the Snag logs threat and the not so dependable machinery of many a River boat saw to that.

  2. I live in Raytown, MO, just east of Kansas City. I got to help chaperone my oldest son's middle school class on a field trip to the Steamboat Arabia Museum. It and the National World War I Museum are my two favorite places to take out-of-towners.

  3. I seem to recall that those mid-west rivers have been displaced quite often, and for surprising distances. The Mississippi shifted 6 miles at some point. The story about the first steamboat trip along there coincided with the big earthquake in 1811-12, and they reported that part of the river disappeared into a large hole in the middle of a field. They barely succeeded in backing away from it to reach a split in the flow, and survived the situation.

    One of the sunken ships that Clive Cussler found with his actual NUMA ship hunting group was discovered under a parking lot near the river.

  4. Peter, considering where you previously lived:

    from wiki:

    In a report filed in November 2008, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency warned that a serious earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone could result in "the highest economic losses due to a natural disaster in the United States," further predicting "widespread and catastrophic" damage across Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and particularly Tennessee, where a 7.7 magnitude quake or greater would cause damage to tens of thousands of structures affecting water distribution, transportation systems, and other vital infrastructure.[11]

    Some estimates of the 1811-12 quakes are in the region of 8.8 Richter. Rattled Boston.

  5. An excellent museum, well worth a few hours! Plus, the snag is on display so you can see what caused the wreck…it wasn't a little tiny "oh, no, we hit a wee bit of branch" sort of event.

    As the story goes, the passengers and crew evacuated to the bank with most of their belongings. Which were, of course, stolen overnight which indicated to me that even back then the area was a cesspool of scum and villainy…

  6. Apologies for going off topic, but I thought you would like to see the review of 'Brings the Lightning' I just posted over on Amazon…

    This should be a movie…

    But keep it the hell away from Hollywierd. I haven't read any of Louis L'Amour's westerns, so I have no basis for comparison there. I am, however, a fan of western movies, particularly 'Silverado', 'Unforgiven', 'Tombstone', and pretty much anything with John Wayne.

    My two all time favorite movies are 'Gettysburg' and 'Gods and Generals'. These are the only movies made in the last 30 years that show people on both sides of the Civil War, civilian and military, as People, rather than as stainless heroes fighting unspeakable villains.

    Mr. Grant has captured that essence with 'Brings the Lightning'. I've read and liked all of his 'Maxwell' and 'Laredo' series books, but the character development and storytelling here blows those away.

    A movie faithful to this book could be in the same class as those greats mentioned above, as long as today's studios can't get their grubby, Politically Correct mitts on it. Maybe Castalia House should see about setting up their own studio or production company.

  7. You can see a similar museum, a "department store of 1867," at the steamboard Bartram museum at the De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge in western Iowa, off US 30.

    Same story: boat sank in the Missouri, passengers rescued, contents preserved by thick layer of mud, river shifted course leaving wreck under a cornfield.

    When I walked through it — note the date of the wreck — my first thought was, "So this is how the North won the war."

  8. It is well worth your time to visit. The quantity of material recovered in serviceable condition is truly astounding. I understand they opened some of the canned goods and found them still edible. By all means stop if you're ever make it to KC. If you have time, the National WWI Museum is also well worth a visit.

  9. I'll second Chas Clifton's recommendation. There are also nature trails to wander and other things to look at near Desoto Bend. 'Course, I grew up near there in part, so I may be a bit biased. 🙂


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