The Arabia Steamboat Museum finally seems ready to leave the River Market

Located in the same location since 1857, the city market is almost as old as Kansas City itself. By the 1850s, more than three hundred steamboats sailed the Missouri River, including the Arabia before it sank in 1856.

Arabia is probably the best-known steamer of the time, at least in Kansas City, where for more than thirty years its salvaged cargo has been on display in a museum in the City Market. Museum owner Matt Hawley asked the city for more space and says he was ignored. In May, he announced he had signed a letter of intent to move the museum when its lease expires in 2026.

The announcement received widespread media coverage, with comments from Hawley, but silence from her neighbors and the city.

“Unfortunately, I am unable to comment on matters regarding our tenants’ tenancy agreements,” City Market spokeswoman Sue Patterson wrote in an email to Kansas City magazine.

Hawley has big plans for his museum. He wants to dig a second sunken steamer, the Malta, buried in a bend in the middle of Missouri, and expand his business.

In Hawley’s retelling of history, his museum has helped make the area family-friendly. As he recounts, the area was called the “River Quay” and was dominated by organized crime until the 1980s. Hawley says moving there in 1991 was an uncomfortable gamble.

“That’s why we could afford so much space,” says Hawley. “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. Soon after, developers Mel Mallin and Dana Gibson were working to transform buildings in the area into an arts community. They have transformed old factories and warehouses into loft-style apartments inspired by New York’s SoHo district.

As the River Quay transformed into the River Market, the remains of Kansas City’s top mobsters were either imprisoned or died. The city began to view the area as a place for events, which did not fit Hawley’s vision.

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

In another concession in Hawley, the city will not allow any business in the building with the Arabia Steamboat Museum to have running water, which he says is important for its conservation efforts. Hawley says the city wants bars and restaurants in the market.

The museum’s neighbors don’t seem in tune with the likely move from Arabia. An employee of Dalia’s Silver Lining says she’s not worried about the move because most of her traffic comes from the farmers’ market. She is excited about the extension of the KC tram.

“It’s not the first time they’ve said they’re moving out and resigned their lease,” says John Stein, owner of The Candy Wizard next door.

Indeed, the museum has threatened to go up or down the river on several occasions, since 1992, when there was not even a year of activity. Located under a Chinese restaurant and a fish market, the museum claims to have suffered water damage to many artifacts due to leaks inside the building. The Blatant Steamboat Log reported in 1993 that museum operators had taken legal action against Ja Chi King, who had rented the space above them.

In 2005, The star reported that the Arabia Steamboat Museum was once again considering moving in order to accommodate the exhibit from another excavation. They were considering moving to the Science City space in Union Station. 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 discussions about moving the museum to St. Joseph, Parkville, Independence, North Kansas City and Marshall. There has even been talk of moving the collection to the Heinz Visitor Center in Pittsburgh.

The museum’s current decision is to get more space as well, this time for the Malta excavations.

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

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

“I tell people if I was a bettor I would be betting money on St. Charles right now,” Hawley says.

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