River yields glimpses of past as 'Treasures of the Arabia' debuts at Heinz History Center


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More than 300 steamboats, including some built in Pittsburgh, have sunk in the treacherous waters of the Missouri River.

Starting Saturday, visitors to the Senator John Heinz History Center will have a chance to see the remains of and cargo from one of those doomed vessels. Almost 2,000 artifacts are part of a new exhibit, "Pittsburgh's Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia."

Those items are among more than a million objects retrieved from the mud 45 feet below a Kansas cornfield.

Steamboat treasures on display at History Center

The Sen. John Heinz History Center has unveiled an exhibit of artifacts recovered from a steamboat , built in 1853 in Pittsburgh, that was found buried along the Missouri River. (Video by Nate Guidry; 4/24/2014)

Not only the sunken boat but some of its cargo came from Pittsburgh factories and workshops. Andrew Masich, president of the history center, said those items help tell the story of the region in the 19th century.

"These objects are a time capsule from when Pittsburgh was the Gateway to the West," he said.

Mr. Masich and Leslie Przybylek, the history center's lead curator for the "Treasures" exhibit, conducted a pre-opening tour Thursday. They were accompanied by members of the Hawley and Mackey families, who located and recovered the sunken ship.

The vessel sank Sept. 5, 1856, in the Missouri River near Kansas City, taking down 200 tons of cargo and a mule. The animal was the disaster's only victim. All 130 passengers and crew members were rowed to shore.

After the river shifted, the steamboat and its contents were buried deep under farmland in a watery, air-free grave on the Kansas side of the waterway.

The location had been known for years, and there had been previous efforts to salvage items. The two families obtained rights to recover the boat and its contents and began their work in 1988.

That work involved simply (well, not so simply because it was 45 feet underground) digging a big pit, and bringing everything out. They kept the items they found wet and cold, using, among other things, large freezers from a restaurant commissary belonging to one of the families, until they could be conserved. Many items still await treatment.

If you go
 
"Pittsburgh's Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia" opens Saturday at the Heinz History Center and runs through Jan. 4.
The history center, at 1212 Smallman St., Strip District, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
The museum has scheduled special behind-the-scenes tours of the exhibit with members of the families that excavated the steamboat at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. Saturday. The tours are included with regular museum admission of $15 for adults, $13 for seniors age 62 and older and $6 for students and children ages 6 to 17. Children age 5 and younger are admitted free. Pre-registration for the tours is required at the museum admission desk.
More information is available at www.heinzhistorycenter.org.
The "Treasures of the Arabia" exhibit is sponsored by 14 individuals and organizations, including historian David McCullough. Other supporters are BNY Mellon, The Hillman Foundation, UPMC Health Plan, W.P. Snyder III Charitable Fund, the Bozzone Family Foundation, Dollar Bank, Beverlynn & Steven Elliott, Heinz Endowments, Jendoco, Master Builders of Western PA, Ann & Marty McGuinn, Mylan and the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

That anaerobic environment preserved many items made of wood, metal, porcelain and glass. Bottles of champagne, jars of pickles and vials of perfume were among the items recovered and found to be in good condition.

"I'm not a judge of champagne," Bob Hawley said of his taste of the ancient bubbly. "It wasn't bad, but I wouldn't go across the street for it."

His partner, Jerry Mackey, said the pickle he tried was "very sweet but not real crispy."

Containers filled with scent fared well. "The perfume still smelled," Joan Mackey, Jerry's wife, said. "That surprised me."

The 8,000-square-foot show is being presented in partnership with the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Mo., where many similar items are on permanent display. The museum was opened in 1991 by the Hawley and Mackey families.

Locally, visitors enter through a mock cornfield where the well-preserved remains of the boat and its cargo were recovered. The Arabia was one of many vessels built in a shipyard in Brownsville and finished in Pittsburgh. For the next three years it served frontier communities along the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri rivers.

The exhibit at the history center will include tall display cases filled with hundreds of recovered objects that range from axes and boots to saws and woolen jackets. Visitors also will get a sense of what items looked like when family members recovered them from the muck below the cornfield.

Those objects include a keg of Pittsburgh-made nails that melded together into brown, spiky lump of metal and mud.

"Treasures of the Arabia" will feature interactive stations where young visitors can try their hands at piloting a steamboat or identifying different goods carried on the ship.

The exhibit also has a link to "Bloody Kansas" in the years just before the Civil War. Items on display will include one of the 1853 model Sharps carbines that an abolitionist organization sought to bring into Kansas aboard the Arabia. The boxes full of guns were labeled "machinery" and "tools."

The weapons were discovered and removed from the steamboat before it sank.


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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