- Associated Press - Monday, April 28, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - More than 300 steamboats, including some built in Pittsburgh, have sunk in the treacherous waters of the Missouri River.

Visitors to the Senator John Heinz History Center now 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.

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.

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.”

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