Transcript: Guided Tour, Treasures of the Arabia [VIDEO]

Andy Masich, President and CEO, Heinz History Center: 

Hi! I’m Andy Masich, president here at the Heinz History Center and I’m here to give you a tour of our latest exhibit Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat, Treasures of the Arabia.

We’re going to start out in a corn field. That’s because this boat was found a few years ago, 45 feet under a cornfield in Kansas City. It’s a Pittsburgh-built steamboat that sank on the Missouri River.

The Hawley family in Kansas City figured out where the boat was using old navigation charts and this aluminum sled mounted with a metal detector. They dragged it over a cornfield that was a half a mile from the Missouri River. They knew the boat was down there someplace. So they got core-drilling equipment, drilled down through the cornfield after they got a hit on their metal detector, the metal detector pinged and they knew they had found the Pittsburgh-built boilers, built by Lyon and Shorb Company here in Pittsburgh in 1853. As they drilled down through the silt, through the sandy bottom, they found a Goodyear rubber shoe – a child’s shoe – they knew they had a chance at finding the 220 tons of cargo aboard the Steamboat Arabia. They dug a massive hole, but they couldn’t do that until they drained the cornfield. The water table in Kansas City is only 10 feet deep, but the boat was 45 feet down. So they used pumps like this – 20 of them – they circled the site and they drilled down 65 feet. They pumped 20,000 gallons of water a minute to lower the water table and then they started scooping out the overburden. They used to say the Missouri River, it was too thick to drink and too thin to plow. Well, you can see that mud and silt covered over the wreck of the Arabia after it sank in 1856.

Well, this changed everything. They found a million objects. They amazed the world with the largest capsule of 19th century material culture ever discovered anywhere! We’re going to see some of those things today, but let’s start at the beginning.

Let’s talk about steam boating on the western waters. It all began here in Pittsburgh at the confluence of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio rivers. Let’s go back in time. Here’s the entrance to the exhibit and we start with the very first steamboat on the western waters, the New Orleans, built in 1811. If you remember, Robert Fulton really made the first practical steamboat. Well, he came out to the western waters to try out this new-fangled invention. Think about it. Before Fulton’s steamboat, there was only one-way traffic on the western waters. If you were a farmer with your produce or a manufacturer with your goods, you could go down to New Orleans, down the Ohio, down the Mississippi River, but you couldn’t come back. You couldn’t beat against that strong current without steam power, and that’s why steam boating changed everything.

This is the type of steamboat that we found on the western waters. The Buckeye State Packet, it’s a side-wheel steamboat. The amazing thing about these were that they were flat-bottomed, nearly flat-bottomed. You could float a boat this big, 200 feet long, in only six feet of water. But in order to do that you would have to use hog posts. See these posts with chains coming out of them? That was to keep the boat from flexing. Because it was so flat, you had to kind of pull it up like a suspension bridge, both fore and aft and side-side. Hog posts – it’s an important thing to remember. Oh and by the way, if you were living high on the hog, the hog deck was up here. That’s where the fancy passengers were, and maybe the dining hall. Live high on the hog if you’re ever traveling on a steamboat.

Well here’s what Pittsburgh looked like in the 1850s. Here’s the Point. The fountain is right here today. Here’s the old Fort Pitt Blockhouse. The Strip District is the strip of land at the base of the Hill District. Here’s the Mon Wharf. This was lined with steamboats as far as you can see.

In fact you could walk a mile just on steamboats all the way to the Point in the 1850s. This was the steamboat capital of America. Forty percent of all the steamboats built in the 1830s were built right here at the confluence of the rivers, at the forks of the Ohio.

Let’s take a look at the Arabia, built in 1853 in Brownsville. Now Brownsville is just south of Pittsburgh. John Pringle’s boat yard constructed and laid down the keel of the Arabia. They could do everything in Brownsville, but in this case they laid the keel down, they did most of the wood work, they floated the hull down to Pittsburgh and that’s where the boilers were made – boilers like this at Lyon and Shorb. Every iron plate of this boiler is stamped “Lyon and Shorb, Pittsburgh.” These steam engines were the heart of a steamboat. With those big pistons, they could drive the side wheels and churn against the current of the western rivers.

As we come around the corner here, you’re going to see elements from the Steamboat Arabia. You’ll see tools that were used in making the boat, caulking the hull, making it sound. Remember, it had to skim over sand bars and snags – snags are sunken trees -and that’s what did in the Arabia in the long run. We will find out more about that in a little while.

As the Steamboat Arabia left Pittsburgh, it was bound for the Missouri River, starting out here in Brownsville, then Pittsburgh, down the Ohio River, up the Mississippi River to St. Louis. Loaded up with 220 tons of cargo, it set out on its mission up the Missouri River. But it never made it to Omaha. It hit a snag. Five hundred boats sank on the western rivers between 1850 and 1900. Most of them fell victim to snags.

Now a snag is a sunken tree. The way it worked was the river would rush along, undercut the banks, trees would fall in, and they’d float down stream. The root ball, the heavy root ball, would snag on the bottom of the river, and then the current would just aim the trunk down river. As up-river steaming steamboats hit the snag, they were speared through the hold and sank. Well that’s what happened to the Steamboat Arabia.

Let’s take a look at what the Arabia was carrying on its missions up the river in the 1850s. The Arabia was carrying 220 tons of goods up river to frontier towns, but there was a lot going on in the 1850s in America.

We learn about Bleeding Kansas. It was the center of the abolition debate: should there be free states or should there be slave states in the west?

This was the beginning of the Civil War, and the Arabia was steaming right into the heart of it.

In fact, on board the Arabia, we found bundles of shirts like this. This is a militia man’s shirt made of wool. Look at the heart sewn over the heart. This is the kind of thing that John Brown’s men wore in Bleeding Kansas. And, aboard the Arabia, were guns, lots of guns, sharps carbines like this.

John Brown was an abolitionist. His sons and other like-minded people were out in Kansas trying to determine whether Kansas would come into the union as a free state or a slave state. They were battling the border ruffians, men from Missouri who were determined to make Kansas a slave state. Well, what the abolitionists in New England did was packed up sharps rifles like this – these very rifles were aboard the Arabia that year in 1856 – but they were worried about the border ruffians discovering them, so they took them out of their factory crates and put them in German immigrant trunks like this. They wrapped them in straw, straw ropes to protect them, and then at the last minute when they got to St. Louis, they repacked the German immigrant trunks in larger boxes marked “carpenter’s tools” – two boxes for every one of the bigger boxes.

They thought they were safe, but one day, David Star Hoyt, the guy who was charged with transporting the rifles, wrote his mother a letter. He said something like, “Dear mom, thanks for sending my buffalo overcoat. It’s been very cold at night aboard the Arabia. P.S. Those border ruffians have no idea there are angels in their midst carrying sharps rifles.” Hoyt went to the hog deck for dinner. He put his letter in his pocket, but he missed his pocket. A cabin boy found the letter on the deck of the ship, he brought it to the captain of the Arabia, who read it aloud to the whole ship’s company. “P.S. These border ruffians don’t even realize there are angels in their midst.” And they all looked at the guy with the buffalo coat and said grab him! They were going to hang him from the smokestacks, but cooler heads prevailed. He lived, but was later murdered near Kansas City, near Lexington.

Well, they captured the whole stockpile of guns bound for Bleeding Kansas, bound for John Brown’s men. But there was a lawsuit. They recorded all the serial numbers and, eventually, the guns got back to the abolitionists. We were able to reassemble the guns from the Arabia, based on those serial numbers – the first time they’d been back together, well, in 150 years.

But we’re not stopping. We’re walking.

We’re going to see the rest of the cargo – 220 tons of cargo aboard the Arabia. You get a sense of the amount of stuff and the variety of things from paint brushes, rubber shoes, scales, buttons, tin ware, sherry bottles, shoes, boots, cheesecakes, all-spice, butter, everything you would need to survive on the frontier. Incredibly, there were two pre-fabricated homes aboard the Arabia as well. We’ll learn more about that in a minute.

Take a look at some of the types of things found aboard the Arabia. Over here we see kegs of nails. Each keg marked “Pittsburgh 5-and-a-half inch spikes.” These things were from all over the world as you can see from the boxes and barrel heads here, but a lot of material was made right here in Western Pennsylvania.

Some of the things were even harder to recognize today. For example, what is this thing? It’s a combination boot jack and carriage wrench. People coming to the exhibit can test their knowledge of 19th century material culture. Two hundred and twenty tons of stuff, a million objects, you get a sense of the amazing variety and quantity of material, from chisels and coffee grinders to scales and rope-bed tighteners, coal shovels, hats, shoes, stockings, sad irons.

Take a look at the state of preservation of this beaver hat. Beaver hats were very popular in the 19th century because they would shed water. Look at the wool shirts and trousers and leather belts, as if they were made yesterday. There are lots of little things too – buttons and clothes pins and thimbles and beads of all description. Inside the hold of the Arabia were thousands, literally thousands of objects. The tin ware looked as if it was made yesterday, the china, with its fire gilding, still brilliant, the boots and shoes as if they were made yesterday, hanks of yarn ready to weave or spin, brass buckles, spurs, powder flasks, guns, coffee mills.

But take a look at this. It doesn’t look like much, but that’s 1850s underwear. Now think about it. How much 1850s underwear do you think there is? People never keep underwear. You might keep your wedding dress or your dress uniform, but nobody kept underwear. Aboard the Arabia there were bundles of wool underwear. It amazed historians.

Throughout the hold we found tools and bed parts and construction materials, hooks and door knobs, and locks and block planes and saws and spokes shaves – everything they needed on the frontier to survive. Look at the china. Look at the glassware. It’s an amazing story, an amazing state of preservation because it was found in an anaerobic environment. No oxygen at 45 feet under a cornfield in the water table.

And that’s why we even found pickles – pickles that were still edible. That’s right. One of the diggers took the cork out of one of the pickle jars and ate a pickle. They’re sweet pickles and they’re still edible. The champagne was still under pressure – ketchup still in the bottle.

We’ll find out how the Arabia went down. Some of the pieces of the Arabia were bent and twisted because the water, the current, washed the upper decks off as the boat settled deeper and deeper and deeper into the mud. Remember, 500 boats sank on the Mississippi and Missouri River between 1850 and 1900. The average life – the life expectancy of a steamboat like the Arabia – three to four years.

The boat went down. Everything went down with it. A hundred and thirty people, however, got off the boat. The only casualty was a mule. That’s right. A carpenter brought a mule aboard and tied it to a big piece of machinery at the stern of the boat. When the boat started sinking, the people all got off, but the carpenter left his mule tied to the machinery. He told everybody later the mule was stubborn and wouldn’t come. “I tried to make him go, but he wouldn’t.” Well, when the Arabia was excavated, they found the mule still tied to the machinery. No one went back to free him.

Here in the Steamboat Arabia exhibit, you’ll see clothing, shoes, coats, shirts. Look at the brass buttons still with their high polish on them. You’ll see bolts of fabric to be used to make dressed goods on the frontier. You’ll find pieces of the pre-fabricated homes. Think about it. If you were living in a sod house, maybe a log house if you were lucky on the frontier, what a boon it would be if a frame building, just like back east, was brought out to you, all numbered and ready to assemble. Iron spikes and nails and screws, window glass – all kinds of tools – bed springs and clothing. Everything you’d need to survive on the frontier was aboard the Arabia. In fact, when the Arabia didn’t show up, several frontier towns dried up and blew away.

Well we’ve seen the Steamboat Arabia exhibit here at the Heinz History Center. It’s also a story of conservation. How do you take care of artifacts once you excavate them? This is what a keg of nails looks like if you don’t preserve it. This was exposed to the air rather than submerged and freeze-dried the way many of the objects aboard the Arabia were. This is a box of door knobs – a keg of nails. Clothing that was sewn together with cotton thread – cotton thread dissolved – so a vest might turn into a vest kit that had to be re-stitched by conservators. As they dug things up they had to stitch things back together. Here’s a stack of eight hats coming right out of the muck. That china, with the fire gilding on it, you can still see the original packing material, the straw in the box.

It’s an amazing story of loss, discovery, conservation, and history. And it’s all here at the Heinz History Center.

This video is the full guided tour of the History Center’s recent exhibition, Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat: Treasures of the Arabia.