Imagine that you’re having dinner at a friend’s house, along with that friend’s two adult sons. And out of the blue, your friend announces he has just learned that the steamship Arabia is buried somewhere nearby, but no one has been able to find it in the 132 years since it sank in the Missouri River. Then he adds, “I was thinking the four of us should go look for it.”
The Arabia Steamboat Museum
And so began the unlikely adventure of a lifetime back in 1988 for Bob Hawley (the father), David and Greg Hawley (the sons), and Jerry Mackey (Bob’s friend). They were later joined by a fifth member of the team named David Luttrell.
Built in 1853 in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, the Arabia was 171 feet long and, using up to 30 cords of wood per day, averaged about five miles per hour on its upstream river trips.
The ship sank in 1856 after hitting a large tree snag in the water, an all-too-common hazard that doomed many of the nearly 300 steamboats that wrecked on the Missouri River between St. Louis, Missouri and Pierre, South Dakota. The 150 crew members and passengers survived, but 200 tons of cargo went down with the ship in about 15 feet of water. Within a week, the ship had disappeared below the riverbed.
The first challenge for the group was finding the ship, not as easy as you might imagine, due to shifting sand and changes to the river channel over the years. Using old maps, newspaper articles and a proton magnetometer, they determined that the boat was hiding in a cornfield half a mile away from the current river channel about 45 feet under the surface.
With instructions to wrap up before time to plant spring crops, the farmer/landowner gave permission for the group to dig. Not a simple task, as they needed to bring in heavy equipment and use pumps to keep the hole from filling back up with water. But they met the deadline and within just a few months had successfully extracted the ship (in pieces), along with its cargo.
They recovered a tremendous amount of stuff and wondered what to do with it. No doubt they could have sold many of the artifacts but preferred to keep the collection intact. So in 1991, they opened a museum.
We paid a visit to the museum during our recent visit to Kansas City, and it was fantastic. Thousands of artifacts are on display, having been painstakingly cleaned and arranged for display by category.
Pieces of the boat were also on display, as well as the nefarious snag found embedded in the ship’s cargo hold.
The museum is still a work in progress, as cleaning and restoration efforts are ongoing at the on-site lab.
Visitors of all ages will enjoy their time at the Arabia Steamboat Museum, but be forewarned that it’s a popular site for school field trips – you’re likely to share the space with large groups of enthusiastic children.
Next, we travelled 2.1 miles from the steamboat museum to learn about the people and legacy of a special Kansas City neighborhood.
Museums at 18th & Vine
Racial segregation laws and blatant discrimination were widespread across the U.S. during the first 2/3 of the 20th century. In Kansas City, Missouri, African Americans faced restrictions in just about every aspect of their daily lives, including where they could live, work, learn, shop and play. The 18th & Vine area evolved into a close knit community and vibrant hub for the African American population, with its own schools, churches, professional services, social clubs and entertainment venues, as well as hundreds of Black-owned businesses providing other goods and services.
An interesting exhibit in the lobby of the museum building chronicled the history of the 18th & Vine neighborhood.
The museums at 18th & Vine celebrate two of Kansas City’s most impactful and enduring developments of the early 20th century – Negro Leagues baseball and Kansas City jazz. The epicenter for both was right here.
Bill was familiar with Negro Leagues baseball, but no being a huge fan myself, perhaps it’s not surprising that it was all new information to me. As we began researching things to do in Kansas City, we were encouraged by friends to pay a visit to the museum, and we were not disappointed! It’s a compelling story that’s about so much more than baseball.
Since Black players were excluded from major league baseball, they decided to form their own teams, and by 1920 had begun organizing those teams into leagues, eventually having both Western (but only as far west as Houston) and Eastern Divisions of the Negro Leagues.
The museum walked us through the rise and fall of Negro Leagues baseball over the next 30+ years. The Kansas City Monarchs – longest running team of the Negro Leagues – attracted large crowds to their games, which were played at nearby Muehlebach Stadium.
“Everybody got dressed to the nines to go to the ball game, not like today, when people dress like they’re going to rake leaves. Negro league games . . . were THE event of the week.” (Charlie Biot, New York Black Yankees player, 1939-1941)
In all their years, the Monarchs had only one losing season, winning ten league pennants, as well as the inaugural World Series in 1924 (championship team shown below).
During World War II, they captured a second world title. Starting in the late 1940s, support for Negro Leagues teams quickly declined, leading to its demise in the mid-50s.
Annual attendance at Negro Leagues All-Star games:
Although the rapid decline of the Negro Leagues was bittersweet, it was an organization that shouldn’t have been needed in the first place. The wheels for eventual disbandment were set in motion in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first team African American to play in the major leagues. As Black players were integrated into professional baseball teams, the Negro Leagues no longer had a raison d’être.
It likely goes without saying, but those guys were good! In addition to Jackie Robinson, more than 40 MLB Hall of Famers got their start in the Negro Leagues, including Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Buck O’Neil.
And that’s a brief report from the outstanding Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
Afterwards, we made the short walk across the lobby to the American Jazz Museum. The best thing about this gallery was that it doesn’t try to do too much. It’s not a comprehensive history of jazz in the U.S. Instead, this small museum focuses on the Kansas City jazz scene during the middle third of the 1900s, when the style was transitioning from big bands to bebop. With elements of blues and ragtime, the Kansas City jazz style was also known as highly improvisational. Locals included big names Count Basie and Charlie Parker.
There were at least 50 jazz clubs in town – mostly concentrated in the 18th & Vine neighborhood – that thrived during the Prohibition years of 1920-1933, thanks in part to Kansas City officials turning a blind eye to liquor violations. The City’s location as a transportation hub for train travel, in addition to its “wide open, anything goes” reputation, attracted hordes of people just passing through. Jazz clubs enjoyed a steady supply of top notch performers, many stopping for a few days when traveling between Chicago, St. Louis and New Orleans.
The museum highlights the music and lives of a handful of artists that frequented the local clubs during this vibrant time period, including Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and others. Each exhibit contains memorabilia and personal effects, along with a listening station. You could spend hours just sampling the music of those amazing artists.
Visually, there was a lot going on in the intimate museum space, and I only got a few decent photos. The first one is the plastic saxophone Charlie Parker played in a now-famous 1953 concert in Toronto with fellow performers Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach.
The Pablo Picasso sketch of Ella Fitzgerald shown below was commissioned by her manager and used in many of her promotional materials.
Also shown below is a large scale version of a U.S. postage stamp featuring Duke Ellington that was issued in 1986.
Plus a sampling of LPs featuring the music of Louis Armstrong:
And finally, a jazz venue at the museum used for live performances:
If you have the time when you’re in Kansas City, spend a day at 18th & Vine. You won’t be disappointed!
And plan to have lunch at nearby Arthur Bryant’s Barbeque. Serving smoked meats since 1908, the restaurant has hosted five U.S. presidents and numerous other celebrities. It was our first visit since the early 1970s, and honestly, very little has changed.
The End of Our Visit to KC
There are more things to see in Kansas City than you might imagine, so our week came to an end before we had visited all the places on our ‘must see’ list. (Click this link for the first article, Need a Reason to Visit Kansas City? Here Are Three)
I’ll end this post with a few photos from the beautiful Riverfront Trail that runs for 4.8 miles along the Missouri River through the heart of the City. Until next time!