From global events to local treasures, history has a home in Kansas City


The Kansas City National World War I Museum is housed in the Liberty Memorial.

Grenades and “fighting knives” attest to the bitter fighting of World War I, where soldiers in tunnels or trenches might be blown up, gassed, buried alive or encounter the enemy with barely room to draw a blade in defense.

Dave Hawley sits beside a stanchion from the “Arabia” -- a ship he discovered buried beneath a cornfield.  

This is what the ill-fated “Arabia” would have looked like under full steam as she carried passengers and supplies toward the frontier. 

Keys and all sorts of tools were found in the once-buried Arabia steamship.

Shoes of various kinds appear to have been bound for general stors farther west. As well as personal goods, the “Arabia” was loaded to the decks with “dry goods” to stock stores for the coming season of families traveling to the frontier.

Stockings, someone’s cloak and hat and bolts of material were preserved by nearly 150 years below ground. The reason there were no human fatalities; the “Arabia” sunk while most were on land eating supper, and the rest were able to scramble to shore.

President Harry Truman’s home is in Independence, Mo., just outside Kansas City. The unassuming Midwesterner, who famously “lost” to Thomas Dewey in every poll except the actual Presidential election, returned to his Missouri roots as soon as he could. 

When co-workers asked me why I was going to Kansas City -- as if it were merely flyover country -- I said there is much to see and I’d tell them after my trip. While some seemed skeptical, one piped up that the World War l museum was the best military museum he’d ever seen.

Some of my colleagues didn’t realize that Kansas City is also known for its jazz and blues clubs - I saw the McFadden brothers perform in the Blue Room - and for barbecue, ballet, symphony orchestra and Harry Truman’s presidential library.

Steamship in a cornfield

The idea that you never know what you might discover in Kansas rang true for one recent explorer.

In 1856, a Kansas City newspaper offered this account of a local tragedy:

“We embarked on the boat in St. Louis and had been on the water about 10 days. The boat was heavily loaded with freight but did have a large number of passengers,” said Able D. Kirk in an eyewitness account of the sinking of the paddlewheeler “Arabia” on the Missouri River. “One evening when many of the passengers were at supper the boat struck a snag. We felt the shock and at once the boat started sinking. There was a wild scene on board.... I climbed out and pulled the women ashore.”

By 1988 local memory of the Arabia had faded to a footnote. But Dave Hawley had always been intrigued by the stories that not only had an antebellum steamship been sunk in the river, but also that it was still somewhere along the notoriously changeable riverbank, perhaps covered in mud and forgotten.

Hawley began researching old newspapers for information on the sinking and scouted the area. He, his father, brother and two acquaintances finally homed in on what sounded like an extremely unlikely spot: a cornfield six miles west of Kansas City.

Fortunately, the farmer who owned the land had also heard tales of a buried ship. Hawley’s group asked permission to walk around the property with a magnetometer -- after the crops were harvested for the year -- and set a marker every time the device signaled it had found metal.

Before long, the profile of a steamboat was outlined in the cutover field. Hawley and his partners hired a crew to carefully dig down the 45 feet necessary to reach the ship, working in winter so the soil wouldn’t cave in on the find. The entire vessel was there, encased outside and filled inside with the mud that had reclaimed that section of the river.

Filling in the details

In September 1856, two years after the West was opened to settlers, the fully loaded Arabia was carrying passengers and supplies intended for general stores and homes in frontier towns along the Missouri River. It was one of about 400 ships that had sunk along the 2,500-mile river.

The steamship was loaded with tools, guns, dishes, shoes, clothing, buttons, food and all sorts of items essential for homesteading when it hit a snag and sank. Whether Able D. Kirk was the hero who pulled everyone to safety or not, historians believe the only casualty was a mule that was tied to the craft.

Before anyone could try to salvage items from the boat, the water washed under it, and it was covered with mud. Over the years, the river changed course so that the riverbed became what was assumed to have always been dry land.

The Arabia’s contents offer a peek at the lives of the pioneers heading west.

Still able to take a shine, a collection of skeleton keys must have been bound for hardware stores along the route -- or passengers had a lot more locks than we’d imagine. Cloth and decorative notions also appear to have been headed for a store’s shelves. The unfortunate mule’s skull and bridle have been preserved, and a host of other items are on display along with parts of the steamship, posters telling the story and a map with the names of other steamships that sank along the river.

The perfectly-preserved artifacts are unique in that they were claimed from people’s lives at a specific moment in time, rather than being passed on, sold or otherwise scattered. Hawley’s find is considered the largest sole collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

In 1991 the “Arabia Steamship Museum” opened in a former Kansas City warehouse to showcase the clothing, tools and household goods as they become available. Work continues, as many artifacts are still being cleaned and prepared for this remarkable display.

And for those who’d like to meet a modern-day treasure hunter, Hawley is frequently at the museum to talk to visitors about his amazing story.

The first ‘modern’ war, with all its horror

Yes, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in June 1914 did lead to World War I, as I learned in high school. But the political conflicts and tensions leading up to the war were more complex than I ever knew.

Visitors can learn the story behind what people at the time hoped was “the war to end all wars” through the narratives of actual soldiers as well as seeing their weapons and uniforms and finding out more about their lives at the National World War I Museum, which is housed in the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City.

The museum also features a 1917 tank straight from the battlefield and many models of hand grenades, both technological innovations that introduced the horrors of “modern” warfare. More antique-looking to the modern eye: a French 1899 cannon, a fragile-looking “war plane” and the patriotic posters that urged citizens to join the military or buy war bonds.

A complex diagram of trenches and tunnels shows how 4 million soldiers could be dug in along a 400-mile battlefront. Other displays touch on the hardships endured on the home front, when supply ships were being sunk and profiteers made the most of dwindling food and fuel supplies.

After the war, Kansas City’s own patriotism beat out that of New York and other much larger cities in the race to build a national monument. Kansas City’s superior fundraising drive brought five supreme Allied Commanders to town to attend the dedication of the Liberty Memorial in 1921.

In 1998, Kansas Citians raised money for a new state-of-the-art war museum to be built under the Liberty Memorial. Opening in 2005, the museum was designated by Congress as the nation’s official National World War I Museum. It is a one-of-a kind look into the war that was supposed to end all wars.

Harry Truman: The ‘people’s president’

President Harry Truman said he wanted to be remembered as the “people’s president.” He believed he represented all citizens when he was president from 1945 to 1953. Less educated and less wealthy than most recent presidents, Truman lived a simple life. At the end of his presidency he moved back home to Independence, Mo., where he was born and raised. He’d often sign autographs for people standing at his gate, and he had no Secret Service protection.

For a glimpse of the personal life of America’s 33rd president, visit the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site, which is operated by the National Park Service and includes the home where he and his wife, Bess, lived until their deaths.

Truman succeeded President Franklin Roosevelt just 82 days after being elected vice president and prior to the declarations of victory in the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.

Truman succeeded to the Presidency at a pivotal time. He authorized the use of atomic bombs against Japan. The world war came to an end, but conflicts with the Soviet Union increased, ushering in decades of “cold war” and the fear of nuclear weapons. The Korean war began on his watch.

Among his accomplishments, Truman helped found the United Nations and started racial integration in the military and in federal agencies.

The Truman Library and Museum is part of this national historic site and features video programs, exhibits and artifacts. Visitors can take a look at Truman’s Oval Office, and children can enjoy an activities area. Visitors are greeted at the front door by a wall-size Thomas Hart Benton mural showing pioneer families moving west.

Independence also notes its role as a stepping-off point to the West, with the National Frontier Trails Museum nearby. The city was once the edge of the settled world and a major hub for outfitting some 400,000 pioneers setting out on the Santa Fe, Oregon and California trails and the nearby Mormon trail. Visitors can see covered wagons and read personal stories of the joys and hardships of the pioneers.

These are some things I told my friends and co-workers about Kansas City, which is a short plane ride away or a 430-mile drive. Of course, there is far more to see like the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and the American Jazz Museum.

For more information on sports, museums, the arts, accommodations, entertainment, restaurants and help planning a trip there, go to www.visitKC.com.

To view a brief video of the the McFadden brothers performing in the Blue Room, go to lillienews.com.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818.
 
 

 

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