The Arabia Steamboat Museum finally seems ready to shove off from the River Market

Steamboat Arabia
Photo by staff.

Standing in the same location since 1857, the City Market is nearly as old as Kansas City itself. In the 1850s, over three hundred steamboats traveled on the Missouri River—including the Arabia before it sank in 1856. 

The Arabia is probably the best-known steamboat of the era, at least in Kansas City, where for over thirty years its salvaged cargo has been on display at a museum in the City Market. The museum’s owner, Matt Hawley, has asked for more space from the city and says he was ignored. In May, he announced that he’d signed a letter of intent to move the museum when his lease expires in 2026.

The announcement got widespread press coverage, with commentary from Hawley, but a loud silence from his neighbors and the city. 

“Unfortunately, I’m unable to comment on matters concerning our tenants’ lease agreements,” Sue Patterson, spokesperson for the City Market, wrote in an email to Kansas City magazine.

Hawley has big plans for his museum. He wants to excavate a second sunken steamboat, the Malta, buried in a bend in mid-Missouri, and grow his business.

In Hawley’s telling of the story, his museum helped make the area family-friendly. As he tells it, the area was called the “River Quay” and was overridden with organized crime until the ’80s. Hawley says moving to the location in 1991 was an uncomfortable gamble.

“That’s why we could afford this much space,” Hawley says. “It was cheap because nobody wanted to be here.”

Photo by staff.

The River Market neighborhood was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. Shortly thereafter, developers Mel Mallin and Dana Gibson were working to repurpose buildings in the area into an artistic community. They turned old factories and warehouses into loft-style apartments inspired by New York City’s SoHo district.

As the River Quay transitioned into River Market, remnants of Kansas City’s main mobsters were either jailed or passed away. The city started to look at the area as a spot for events—which did not match Hawley’s vision.

Past stories with headlines like “Rock Concerts Moved to Appease Steamboat Museum” hint at old tensions. Hawley pushed to have a concert series at the River Market canceled because he claimed a Death Cab for Cutie show was so loud that it shook his building and could damage the artifacts. The city offered to pay his insurance if the concerts could continue, but he refused. “You can’t replace these things,” Hawley says. “It’s not like other venues where it’s like, ‘Hey, if something breaks, it’s insured, it’s covered.’”

In another concession to Hawley, the city won’t allow any businesses in the building with the Arabia Steamboat Museum to have running water, which he says is important to his conservation efforts. Hawley says the city wants bars and restaurants in the Market.

The museum’s neighbors seem unphased by the Arabia’s likely relocation. A staffer at Dalia’s Silver Lining says she isn’t worried about the move, as most of her traffic filters in from the farmers market. She’s excited about the extension of the KC Streetcar.

“It’s not the first time they said they were going to move and resigned their lease,” says John Stein, the owner of The Candy Wizard next door. 

Indeed, the museum has threatened to shove off upriver or down many times—starting way back in 1992, not even a year into business. Located underneath a Chinese restaurant and a fish market, the museum says it suffered water damage to many artifacts from leaks within the building. The Egregious Steamboat Journal reported in 1993 that the museum’s operators filed a lawsuit against Ja Chi King, who leased the space above them.

In 2005, The Star reported that the Arabia Steamboat Museum was once again looking at relocating in order to accommodate exhibiting another excavation. They looked at moving to Union Station’s Science City space. Other areas of interest included Independence, Atchison and Leavenworth. In 2019, there were serious conversations about opening a museum in Jefferson City. Hawley says there have also been conversations about moving the museum to St. Joseph, Parkville, Independence, North Kansas City and Marshall. There was even mention of moving the collection to the Heinz Visitor Center in Pittsburgh. 

The museum’s current pending move is to achieve more space, too—this time for the excavation of the Malta.

“At the end of the day, Kansas City folks said that they have so many other big things on the horizon they probably wouldn’t be able to fit us in with their plans moving forward, so we had to open up the search to the rest of the state,” Hawley says.

The history of St. Charles fits neatly with Steamboat Arabia. Not only is the St. Louis suburb right on the Missouri River, but it was also once home to Captain John Shaw, who owned the Arabia in 1855.

“I tell folks, if I was a betting man, I’d bet money on St. Charles right now,” Hawley says.

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