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Steamboat Arabia Museum Ponders Move from KC to St. Louis Suburb St. Charles Has 6 Months to Close a Deal

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Above image credit: A rendering of the Steamboat Arabia on the Missouri River. (Courtesy | Steamboat Arabia Museum)
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3 minute read

The Steamboat Arabia Museum, one of Kansas City’s bigger tourism draws, has a tentative agreement to set sail from the City Market to St. Charles, Missouri, according to city officials there.

“We do have a letter of intent that’s signed, sealed and delivered,” St. Charles Mayor Dan Borgmeyer said.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum is one of the top tourism draws in Kansas City. It ranked third behind the National World War I Museum and Memorial and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in a survey last year by Tripadvisor.

If the museum moves to the St. Louis suburb, it would be a homecoming of sorts for the steamboat that sank in 1856 while hauling cargo up the Missouri River to the western frontier.

The ship’s owner was Capt. John Shaw, a St. Charles resident. His historic home remains there and Shaw is buried in the city cemetery.

“If it should be anyplace, it should be here,” Borgmeyer said.

Entrance of the Steamboat Arabia Museum
The Steamboat Arabia Museum has operated in the City Market for about 30 years. (Kevin Collison | CityScene)

News of the potential move to St. Charles first was reported earlier this month by Tony Messenger, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

David Hawley, the owner and operator of the Steamboat Arabia Museum, could not be reached for comment.

A representative for the operator of the City Market declined to comment.

In a January interview with Steve Kraske on KCUR’s “Up to Date,” Hawley was pessimistic about the museum remaining in Kansas City. He said it’s been in the City Market for 30 years. His family began salvaging the wreck in 1988.

“I wish I could say there was a whole lot going on here, but there’s really not,” Hawley told Kraske. “I’ve had discussions with almost everybody you could imagine. It’s not for lack of support.

A museum display featuring artifacts salvaged from the Steamboat Arabia.
The museum displays artifacts salvaged from the boat and provides a snapshot of life on the 1850s frontier. (Courtesy | Steamboat Arabia Museum)

“The folks in Kansas City and the region surrounding us have so supported this museum. They’ve come time and time and they bring their guests. It would break their heart to see this move and it would break mine as well, too.

“The fact of the matter is, this is not a small endeavor.”

Hawley estimated it would cost $50 million to build a museum big enough to accommodate both the artifacts salvaged from the Steamboat Arabia as well as another Missouri River steamboat his museum plans to salvage, the Malta.

Borgmeyer said St. Charles has a couple options in mind for the Arabia and Malta artifacts.

“There’s an investment group with a grand plan that calls for hotels, restaurants, the steamboat and everything else,” he said. “Another option is just the steamboat.”

St. Charles economic development director Mike Klinghammer said one potential site where his city wants to locate a future National Steamboat Museum is on a 15-acre site located between the Katy Trail and the Missouri River.

“The Steamboat Arabia and the city are mutually in agreement to work exclusively with each other to bring the museum to this city,” Klinghammer said, adding St. Charles has six months to complete a development agreement.

“We’re in the conceptual stage,” he said. “We need to work together on which site and assess the costs.

The Steamboat Arabia gift shop in the City Market.
The Steamboat Arabia gift shop in the City Market. The museum is considered one of the top tourism attractions in Kansas City. (Kevin Collison | CityScene)

“It’s important to note, the city of Kansas City has said it’s not going to extend the (museum) lease anymore.”

Like the mayor, Klinghammer said his city would be an appropriate home for the Arabia. He also noted the Malta was owned by the historically important Chouteau family of St. Louis and was transporting goods to be traded for furs with Native Americans when it sank.

“St. Charles is a river town and steamboats were a big part of our history,” Klinghammer said.

Hawley told Kraske his museum has about five years left on its lease in the City Market.

“The sand is running out of the hourglass for us and we’ve got five years to figure this out,” he said.

Borgmeyer said that answer may come this year under the terms of the letter of intent signed with his city.

“We have six months to deliver,” he said.

Flatland contributor Kevin Collison is the founder of CityScene KC, an online source for downtown news and issues.

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