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Steamboat Arabia 1856 by Cathead - FINISHED - Scale 1:64 - sidewheel riverboat from the Missouri River, USA

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The Arabia as envisioned by artist Gary Lucy; used with permission of the Arabia Steamboat Museum


As a resident of rural Missouri, not far from its eponymous river, I've long been fascinated by the less-well-known steamboats that worked the “Big Muddy” from the river’s mouth at St. Louis all the way to the head of navigation at Fort Benton, Montana, an astounding 2,300 river miles. Most modern impressions of interior American steamboats are of the large, highly-decorated “floating wedding cake” craft of the lower Mississippi River, which represent a small fraction of the full diversity of steamboat design and use. Those craft are, to my eye, too gaudy by far, the equivalent of overbuilt Disney cruise liners; I don’t care for them, and I really don't care for the highly inaccurate and toylike models that most kits claim represent American riverboats. I prefer the smaller, leaner steamboats of the upper rivers, those designed to risk the rocky ledges of the Ohio River (such as the Chaperon) or fight their way up the narrow, shallow, ever-changing treacherous channels of the Missouri River.  By the 1850s, their design had been nearly perfectly adapted to the unique conditions they faced, changing little for decades to come, until railroads finally cut them off at the knees. Two of the most well-known and well-documented steamboat wrecks from this period are the Bertrand (a sternwheeler that sank in 1865 and was rediscovered in 1968) and the Arabia (a sidewheeler that sank in 1856 and was rediscovered in 1988). Both boats now have excellent museums displaying their highly diverse and extraordinarily well-preserved cargo; the Bertrand at a wildlife refuge north of Omaha, Nebraska, and the Arabia at a museum in downtown Kansas City, Missouri.


I began researching the Arabia in earnest in spring 2017, writing about and documenting my research and sources for information in a separate thread, but am now ready to begin building the actual model. The text above is copied and rearranged from that thread, but I felt it provided an important introduction to this project and so should be repeated for those who may not go back and read the research thread. Although I am far from a master modeler, this will be my third scratchbuilt Missouri River steamboat. I built a rudimentary version of the Far West when I first became interested in wooden ship modeling, and later tackled a fully-framed and interior-detailed version of the Bertrand. Both of those were built in 1:87, a comfortable scale for me as a former HO model railroader.


However, for this project I wanted a new kind of challenge, so decided to build the Arabia in 1:64. The model will be around 32 inches (81 cm) long, allowing for more detail to be added overall. At the same time, though, I've decided not to recreate a fully-framed hull and interior as I did with Bertrand, for several reasons. First, that was a lot of work and material and would be even more expensive at 1:64, and I've already done that style now. Second, creating a framed model of Arabia would be both redundant and speculative; the museum preserves her stern intact for anyone to see, while the rest of the hull wasn't well-documented by the salvage team, so I'd be guessing more than I did with Bertrand (which was meticulously documented by an archeological team). Third, I just like the idea of a complete exterior model this time, trading a bit less interior detail for more focus on the overall appearance and higher detail allowed by the larger scale. Basically, this is just what I feel like doing this time, and doing a project the way you want to is part of what makes it engaging.


Although my initial plan was to develop a full set of blueprints for this project, that effort has stalled. It just isn't working for me to spend that much time on a computer, which I already do professionally as a freelance science editor. I'd rather spend my downtime working with wood than with pixels. So I stopped after developing a basic outline of the project and will just dive in, holding the design in my head and in various rough sketches and notes. This is, in fact, an authentic way to proceed, as riverboats in this era weren't built from printed blueprints either (one reason few construction records exist) but were simply laid out and built by artisans on the frontier shores of the Upper Ohio River. So any mistakes or quirks I may build into my Arabia as I proceed from the seat of my pants will be, at worst, a tribute to the real vessel's construction.


Above are my loose outlines of her design. The real Arabia was about 170' long and 30' wide (hull, not including the wheels) and drew about 5'.


And the sketches from which I'm getting started. There is no definitive information on the shape of her hull, other than the stern-most portion, which I've based on photos and measurements I took at the museum. So for the rest I've adapted a representative hull profile for the era from Alan Bates' The Western River Steamboat Cyclopoedium. The wheel and its supporting cylinder timbers are drawn directly from measurements I took at the museum. Centered within these drawings is the central internal bulkhead/keel I've laid out. These riverboats didn't have external keels the way normal ships did; their bottoms were generally perfectly flat with a stronger internal keelson instead. In this case, I'll be laying out horizontal bulkheads against this longitudinal one, just like a regular plank-on-bulkhead build. Hopefully now that I've laid the keel, so to speak, I can keep progress coming steadily. Thanks for reading, and for offering any ideas, suggestions, and criticisms that come to mind. I'd sure appreciate it if anyone points out concerns or problems that I can either explain or correct as I go along, as again I'm not a master modeler, just an ambitious one.


Table of Contents

Below I link to posts starting various portions of the build. This is intended to help folks looking for information on specific aspects of steamboats or their modelling, or just those wanting to catch up on a certain section. I'll try to keep this updated as I go along.


Edited by Cathead
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Given that this is something of a seat-of-the-pants build, I wanted to figure out a way to lay out the hull framing and test it before doing any permanent work. This is the approach I hit upon:



Rather than make bulkheads spanning the hull, I'm going to make them one side at a time, as if I was building a half-hull model. This way I can pin each half-bulkhead in place until I get the whole half-hull laid out. Then I'll fair the bulkheads (using tape to insert temporary spacers for stability) so I can test whether their shape produces the run of planking that I want. If it doesn't, I can easily pull any bulkhead and replace or reshape it as needed. Once I'm happy with this side of the hull, I can use these half-bulkheads as templates to make the other half.


Sharp eyes may notice that #2 appears to extend too far beyond the line of the hull. This is intentional; it's hard to see here but that piece is higher than it needs to be on most of the deck side to accommodate both the horizontal camber and the longitudinal fall of the deck. I accomplished that by gluing an extra strip on the upper side, something I haven't done yet for #3-5. So #2 looks unnaturally long but it won't be once everything is shaped properly. That's the idea, anyway.


The basic wood I'm using is a set of (poplar?) strips my stepfather passed along as scrap from his shop (he's a professional cabinet-maker and all-around woodworking artisan). I've been holding onto these for years, thinking they'd be useful for something, and it turns out they're nearly the perfect dimensions for framing in this hull. As all my modelling work happens on a tight budget, I'm very happy to put these to use. They're solid, straight, and nice to work with.


For now, the work is just the repetitive measuring and cutting of half-bulkheads. The middle portion of the hull will be square, so I can mass-produce those a bit more quickly. The stern will be the most challenging, as here the hull curves back in on itself similar to an ocean-going vessel (unlike the far simpler sterns of sternwheelers), so there will be some extra-careful carving and shaping here. I'll update again when there's sufficient progress to show off. Comments, critiques, and suggestions are always welcome.

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The results of this weekend's work: a rough draft of the port side bulkheads. I haven't faired these yet, but the rough run of planking seems close. I do have to figure out the proper run in some odd places; having a flat bottom that transitions into an angled side is quite different from the fully curved and flowing lines of a normal ship, and I've never been able to find a really good reference for how steamboats were planked in some of the odd places (around the lower bow in particular).


Overall view. I haven't bothered with the bulkheads right at the middle, as I can't pin them through the joint in the two keel pieces and they're perfectly rectangular. I'll add them once I start gluing things in.



Bow view. This is where I'm least clear on just how the planking is supposed to lie. Does it wrap up onto the sides of the bow from the flat bottom, or does the flat bottom remain a separate entity with the side planking fitting smoothly along its edge? I've looked at the few photos I can find of planking in various builds of the Chaperon (the only accurate steamboat model I can find on MSW) and still can't quite tell the best way to proceed.



Stern view. This is closer to a normal ship's hull form, so I'm less worried about this. The aft-most two frames need to be beveled a bit more toward the base of the keel.


Thanks for reading.

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Have you been able to find any photos of a steamboat ouf of the water.  Off the top of my head, I don't recall seeing any.  You might contact the folks at the Arch in St. Louis.  They have a great museum and might be able to shed some insight.  Or possibly the museums you've already visited.

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Bob, that's a pretty useful photo, thank you, although it still doesn't show the exact place I most want to understand, the very sharp turn of the bilge between the side planking and the bottom. I have drawings of what this looked like on Arabia in the amidships frames, where they were essentially square, but not in the more complex geometry of the bow.


Mark, when I was researching the design, I reached out to multiple museums and either got no response or a nice response saying they didn't have any resources that would be of help. Although in that case, I was specifically asking about Arabia, so I suppose I should try again with regards to general photos of bow construction. One challenge will be that the Arabia was built before the advent of widespread photography and I'm not sure how much designs changed by the time most construction photos were taken. But anything would still be something.

Edited by Cathead
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Check the Murphy Library at the Univ. of Wisconsin at LaCrosse.  Ralph DuPae collected photos for years and they are all in this library.  Ralph helped me a lot with photos I needed for research.  I didn't have to use the library because Ralph and I sat side by side as he searched for the photos I needed before all the photos ended up at the U.  The digital collection is quite extensive.  Only 2 photos of the Arabia though and they are of equipment.




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Kurt, I've been spending time browsing and searching that excellent collection, but darned if I can find a clear shot of a bow (or any part of the hull) out of water. The few construction photos are all from far away, surrounded by scaffolding, and in any case are all from much later periods (early 20th century).  I've been able to find a few isolated examples in general Google searches, but it's just plain hard to find a clear image of an 1850s steamboat hull from beneath.


One major factor, too, is that (in my understanding) the design of bows changed over time. Early boats mostly had very pointed bows (like a fast ship), but over time builders started adopting the spoon bow, which is much blunter and more rounded (like a collier), because this design made it easier to handle sandbars and levees. But that wasn't common practice in the 1850s, so it's very likely Arabia had a sharp bow. I can't be sure because even the museum's excavation photos show the bow still covered in soil. Most of the steamboat bow photos I can find use something closer to the spoon shape, making them likely less relevant as a model.


I may just have to guess and try to follow a practice that would have made sense at the time (i.e. no extreme bending or overly fancy work). Do you (or anyone else) have other thoughts on how the planking transition might have been handled at the bow? Even in Bob's photo above, I can't tell what happens at the turn of the bilge, or whether/how the planks are tapered or formed to account for the rise in the bow.

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No, that is helpful; it's closer to what I think Arabia and is definitely not a spoon bow. However, it does look like Chaperon's bow is still much fuller than what I was intending; it looks like the frames even right out at the bow start out near vertical and only gently curve inward. For comparison, on Bertrand and the generalized plans from Alan Bates, the bow frames don't curve at all but form a straight-edged triangle from the deck down to the keelson. This makes for a sharper and more difficult curve to the planking. I think I'll need to mock up or illustrate the difference for this to make any sense. I probably should have dealt with this issue in the planning/design thread, but I was excited to get going on the real thing.

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Let's see if this illustrates my dilemma a bit more clearly (see photo below). The generic plans from Alan Bates show bow lines that are triangular; no curve to the frames/bulkheads. This is shown by the printed lines shown below. My first version of the half-hull bulkheads followed this design. However, that perfectly triangular version creates a really difficult run of planking that doesn't seem to match any photos I've seen elsewhere of steamboat hulls. For example, every image I've seen shows the first plank belong the deck (is that still called the sheer plank on a steamboat?) essentially vertical (perpendicular to the deck), yet in this triangular-frame design the first plank would be at a near-45° angle to the deck. This makes the planks curve in a really screwy way and doesn't create the nice, easy, mostly parallel run of planking that I would think most steamboat builders would have preferred over complex bends.  However, the triangular version was also shown in my plans for Bertrand, and those were taken directly from the archeologists' drawings. In that case, I just "cheated" and planked the way the planks wanted to lie, mostly hiding it with paint, because I didn't understand enough about planking back then to really figure this out.


For comparison, I cut a separate set of bulkheads following a more generic rounded form, and set these just behind the triangular bulkheads (below). This version creates a more rounded hull form that immediately produces a smoother, more natural run of planking even without fairing. So I don't know why the Bates plans show the triangular version when it seems to create such a problematic planking run, but I'm strongly tempted to use the curved version instead for practical reasons.


Does that help explain the problem better? Any thoughts, anyone?



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Steamschooner, those are very interesting. I'll get back to you tonight when I have a chance to work on the model. Quick take, those bow lines still have the curves into the keel I would expect, as compared to the perfectly angular lines Bates shows.


Jan, I have Kane's book, which includes limited information on bows. I'll try to write up a summary of his and others' comments on the subject in the next evening or two.

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  • 2 weeks later...

So, two weeks later, I finally get back to this. I consulted and experimented with both steamschooner's plans above and some I found for the sidewheeler Buckeye State (1850), and was convinced that I wanted a much narrower bow. I'm very happy with the half-hull approach I've been using, pinning each bulkhead temporarily in place, because it's been very easy for me to experiment with different hull shapes. Below is what I've settled on, a long, narrow bow that seems more typical of the era before spoon bows really came into use. I re-read Adam Kane's book and confirmed that the narrow "model" bow was prevalent until around 1870. We'll never know for sure just what Arabia's bow looked like, but this is a reasonable guess. You can compare this to the photos earlier in this log of the broader, more bluff bow I started with.


I've also been working on fairing the stern frames, they're at least roughed in. Here's how she currently looks:


The background to these photos is one reason my model work has been delayed; I've been replacing the deck outside our kitchen for the past two weeks (when I can find time) and that's both been taking up time and making me a bit less interested in other wood projects. I'm using all fresh-milled cedar from logs we cut last winter, cured through the summer, and milled this fall. It's nice to work with, and even though the color will fade over time, has a very pleasant aroma and look. I still have to build most of the bench-railings, only having done this short section so far.


Next step on the model is fairing all the bulkheads to be sure I'm happy with the run of planking, then I'll duplicate these shapes on the other side of the model. Thanks for reading, and for being patient with my slow progress.



Edited by Cathead
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