Let's Talk About the Past: Steamboat Arabia

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As explorers and settlers poured into the vast territory opened by the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Pittsburgh -- then known as the "Gateway to the West" -- played a critical role in Western expansion by supplying boats, goods and innovative ideas to the new frontier. Pittsburgh boasted the first steamer on the western rivers in 1811 and by the 1850s built more steamboats than any region in the country.

The Steamboat Arabia -- built in Brownsville, Pa., and finished in Pittsburgh in 1853 -- travelled extensively to frontier towns along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri rivers. The vessel's 200 tons of cargo included more than 1 million objects, some as small as pickles and others as large as prefabricated homes, bound for general stores and pioneer settlements in the West.

During its final journey in 1856, the Arabia hit a tree snag and sank in the Missouri River near Kansas City.

More than 130 years later in the late 1980s, the Hawley family -- a group of modern day treasure hunters -- rediscovered the Arabia buried 45 feet below a cornfield a half-mile from the river. Remarkably, the anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment perfectly preserved most of the boat's cargo -- fine dishware, clothing and even bottled food all preserved in pristine condition.

After years of painstaking preservation efforts, the Hawleys cataloged the Arabia and its contents and opened the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City.

Beginning this Saturday, visitors to the Heinz History Center can explore nearly 2,000 objects from the Arabia's vast collection as part of the "Pittsburgh's Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia" exhibition.

The 8,000-square-foot exhibit will display the largest time capsule of pre-Civil War life and explore Pittsburgh's important role as the Gateway to the West and a national hub of the steamboat-building industry during the mid-19th century. For more information, visit www.heinzhistorycenter.org.

 


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