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Arabia Steamboat Museum may chart course to St. Charles, Missouri

The Arabia Steamboat Museum, currently located in the River Market, is looking to expand its collection and create the National Steamboat Museum. It's unlikely the museum will stay in Kansas City.
Chris Murphy
The owner of the Arabia Steamboat Museum is negotiating a development agreement with the City of St. Charles, Missouri.

One of Kansas City’s biggest tourist draws, the salvaged steamboat is poised to depart the City Market when its lease expires in 2026.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum has been a staple in Kansas City’s River Market for more than 30 years but that could change. St. Charles, Missouri’s director of economic development, Mike Klinghammer, told KCUR that the city of St. Charles and the Arabia Steamboat’s owner, David Hawley, recently signed a letter of intent stating Hawley would work exclusively with the city over the next six months to develop a plan to move the museum to St. Charles.

Klinghammer said the Arabia Steamboat will fit in well in the St. Louis suburb, which is located on the Missouri River.

“The river was one of the primary reasons why the city was established there to begin with, and steamboats were an integral part of the development of the city of St. Charles over the years,” Klinghammer said. “The original owner and captain of the Steamboat Arabia itself was from St. Charles and is actually buried in St. Charles. Captain Shaw was a citizen of ours. And it just makes a really nice tie-in to the Steamboat Arabia.”

The museum’s future in Kansas City has been murky for a few years. In 2019 Hawley told KCUR’s Steve Kraske on Up To Date that he would need a bigger building to house future steamboats he is planning to excavate. There are hundreds of steamboats buried underground between Kansas City and St. Louis; Hawley has been hunting for them since 1988, when he, his brother, father, and a couple friends discovered the Arabia and began excavating the wreck.

Hawley has also located the Malta, a steamboat that sank in 1841. The Malta settled on farmland near Malta Bend, a Missouri town about 90 miles east of Kansas City. Hawley wants to salvage the boat and its cargo and house it under the same roof as the Arabia.

The museum's lease in the city-owned City Market expires in 2026, and Klinghammer said Kansas City told Hawley that they will not renew it. In a January interview, Hawley told Kraske he has run out of options in Kansas City and in order to move forward with salvaging the Malta, he needs more museum space.

“I wish I could say there was a whole lot going on here but there’s really not,” he said. “I’ve had discussions with almost everybody you can imagine. It’s not because of a lack of support. The folks in Kansas City and the regions supporting us have so supported this museum.”

Klinghammer said the museum development in St. Charles would emphasize the role steamboats played in the westward expansion.

“Steamboats were important for the whole westward expansion and we're excited to have the opportunity to bring the museum to the St Louis metro area, St. Charles in particular,” Klinghammer said. “We think that the visitors will really enjoy learning about not only the steamboats themself, but the story that they tell about westward expansion and the whole process of actually finding these boats and exhuming them.”

Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports on health disparities in access and health outcomes in both rural and urban areas.
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