Historic sites in metro area bring past to life GOING TO KANSAS CITY

October 23, 1994|By Carolyn Spencer Brown | Carolyn Spencer Brown,Special to The Sun

Outlaws, sunken riverboats, abandoned woolen mills and reconstructed frontier outposts are all part of Kansas City's glorified 19th-century history. During that time, the Louisiana Purchase, which ignited America's mad passion for westward expansion, and the Civil War, which pitted brother against brother in a divided state, left an indelible imprint on this landscape. In and around Kansas City, local pride in a past both celebrated and checkered lets us experience it in a way no textbook ever could.

These days, the Kansas City metropolitan area -- two cities actually, one in Missouri and the other in Kansas -- has 1.5 million people. It is at the heart of the Midwest and is America's leading manufacturer of greeting cards (home of Hallmark) and of hard-winter-wheat marketing. The Kansas City area offers more miles of boulevards than Paris and more fountains than any city except Rome.

And its tributes to history are outstanding. Instead of seeing musty exhibits in out-of-the-way museums, visitors can picnic in historic forts, hike the westbound pathways of Lewis and Clark from the National Frontier Trails Center, or embark on a computer-simulated exploration of the Oregon Trail at the American Royal Museum.

Yearning to step back in time for just a weekend, I visited some monuments to history on the Missouri side of Kansas City.

Fort Osage

Fort Osage, tucked behind a hilly riverbank, is one of the first settlements in Kansas City. Built in 1808, the fort helped Americans keep an eye on the Missouri portion of their Louisiana Purchase and offered westward adventurers a temporary sanctuary.

Today, Fort Osage has been completely reconstructed based on detailed plans. Blockhouses, stockades and soldiers' quarters have been re-created. The Factory, a 3 1/2 -story trade house, was the heart of the fort, with its posh drawing room (note the harpsichord) and a trading post that served as a shopping mall for Native Americans only. This post provided the Osage Indians with an outlet to trade their furs for everyday items, though they weren't offered any bargains (white sugar was $8 a pound). Nevertheless, the post earned the American interlopers some small measure of appreciation from the Osages.

Fort Osage is in Sibley, Mo., about 30 minutes east of Kansas City.

Steamboat Arabia

Lurid brochures advertising the tragic life of a riverboat that sank in the Missouri River in 1856 may scream tourist trap, but the Steamboat Arabia Museum was actually a very pleasant surprise.

When the Steamboat Arabia, bound for settlements in Iowa and Nebraska, sank on a stormy summer night, she carried 130 passengers and 200 tons of mystery cargo. There was just one death -- a donkey drowned when his owner left him tied to a post -- but speculations that the lost cargo contained gold and whiskey fascinated treasure hunters for more than 100 years.

Efforts to unearth Arabia failed to uncover the missing boat until a treasure-seeking restaurateur, a contractor and a family that installs heating systems got together to dig up a sunken riverboat from the middle of a judge's corn field in Kansas.

The team dug 45 feet beneath the surface, uncovered the Arabia and removed pieces of the ship, such as a paddle wheel, a 12-foot section of the hull, the anchor, boilers and an engine. They also retrieved the elusive cargo, which was preserved for 132 years by the mud and silt of the river.

"We may have started off as treasure hunters," says Greg Hawley, the heating-system entrepreneur who now juggles a second job at the museum. "Through research, we evolved into historians. As our appreciation developed, we couldn't bring ourselves to sell the cargo. So, we're in the museum business now."

At the Steamboat Arabia Museum, an authentic replica of the deck has been re-created and the left paddle wheel rotates away. But it's the treasures that people come to see.

With the largest collection of pre-Civil War cargo in the world, the boat was carrying everything needed to not only build but also to outfit an entire town. On display are exotic imports, including English Wedgewood china, South American coffee beans and French perfumes.

Technological innovations such as sunglasses and lightning rods sit side-by-side with ordinary door keys and coffin screws. A veritable wardrobe of practical woolens, beaver hats and heavy black boots seems appropriate attire for life in the untamed West, but there are also cosmetics and silks.

"It's the ultimate general store," Mr. Hawley says.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum is in the historic City Market in downtown Kansas City, Mo.

Jesse James

Jesse James may have been a liar and a thief, but he's memorialized anyway. During his 16-year outlaw career, James and his gang committed the first peacetime bank robbery in the United States (the Clay County Savings Bank, in Liberty, has been restored as the Jesse James Bank Museum), and held up numerous trains, banks and stagecoaches.

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