Senator John Heinz History Center

Through January 4
Various times

Thousands of rarely seen treasures discovered within a storied sunken steamboat are on view for the first time at the Heinz History Center. The first traveling exhibition featuring items from the Steamboat Arabia collection, and the first time that the boat’s objects have returned to Western PA since 1853, the fascinating showcase features 2,000 once-buried items, including many manufactured right here in our region.

Built in 1853 in Brownsville and Pittsburgh, the Steamboat Arabia traveled extensively to frontier towns along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The vessel’s 200 tons of cargo included one million objects, some as small as pickles and others as large as prefabricated homes, shipped to general stores and pioneer settlements in the West. During its final journey in 1856, the Arabia hit a tree and sank in the Missouri River near Kansas City.

More than 130 years later, a team of modern-day treasure hunters rediscovered the steamboat buried 45 feet below a cornfield a half-mile from the Missouri River. The oxygen-free environment preserved much of the boat’s cargo, including  fine dishware, clothing and even bottled food.

Venture through a cornfield to discover some of the first artifacts unearthed from the excavation, encounter a life-size replica of the steamboat’s 28-foot paddle wheel and view a recreation of the boat’s only casualty–a carpenter’s mule. At special interactive stations, children can stamp their own “build-a-steamboat” cards and navigate through treacherous snags of the Missouri River.

The 8,000-square-foot exhibit, which explores Pittsburgh’s key role as a gateway to the West and a national hub for the 19th-century steamboat building industry, also features a Sharps Model 1853 rifle that was smuggled onto the Arabia during the Kansas free soil campaign, as well as a special section showcasing the ambitious excavation and preservation process.

Jennifer Baron

Jennifer has worked at the Mattress Factory, Brooklyn Museum of Art and Dahesh Museum of Art and is co-author of Pittsburgh Signs Project: 250 Signs of Western Pennsylvania. She also is co-coordinator...