Treasure Ship

PrintPrintEmailEmailThere was no warning of impending danger as the Arabia, carrying 200 tons of freight from St. Louis, headed up the Missouri bound for Sioux City, Iowa. Many of the passengers were at dinner in the well-appointed dining room as the steamboat turned into the Quindaro Bend, just above what is now Kansas City. Perhaps the late-afternoon sun glistening on the water obscured the telltale V of ripples that might have signaled the sunken walnut tree. A sudden jolt sent dishes clattering to the floor. Water rushed into the hold and the ship listed to port. Mothers grabbed the hands of small children as passengers rushed onto the decks, where, amid the chaos, crew members loaded lifeboats while Captain Terrill struggled to control his sinking boat. Then came another jolt: The Arabia had hit the river bottom. Panic subsided as the climbing water stopped below the level of the upper deck. Within two days, the boat had sunk out of sight, settling into the river’s sandy bottom. “Two minutes . . . from the striking until she sunk,” the Daily Missouri Democrat reported, and only one fatality, a mule tethered on a lower deck. Passengers were ferried to the shore, where wagons and horses took them into Parkville. It was September 5, 1856. One hundred and thirty-two years would pass before the ship at last began to yield up her cargo.

GROWING UP NEAR KANSAS CITY IN THE 1960s AND 1970s, Greg and David Hawley were lucky kids. Theirs was a tightly knit family that spent summer vacations exploring abandoned mines and panning for gold in the Colorado Rockies. The boys shared their father’s fascination with stories of striking it rich, and as they got older, they continued their family explorations, “dragging our wives and children along,” as Greg puts it.

Both young men worked for their father, Bob Hawley, at his air-conditioning and refrigeration company. On a service call one day, David had a conversation that changed the lives of everyone in his family. His customer told him a story of a treasure very different from Colorado gold, a story of steamboats sunken with their valuable cargoes. Moreover, this nineteenth-century mother lode was in their own back yard, entombed by the muddy Missouri River.

As youngsters the boys had fished the Missouri, skipped rocks on it, and clambered up and down its banks without giving a thought to the history of travel on the river. Their client’s story opened their eyes to a fascinating and dangerous period. Meeting over lunch at their friend Jerry Mackey’s restaurant, the three Hawleys and Jerry decided this new trail demanded exploration. Their research led them into the history of America’s Western expansion.

Rivers were the most reliable roadways to the outer reaches of the Louisiana Purchase; the first steamboat on Western waters clattered up the Missouri from St. Louis to Franklin—halfway across the present state of Missouri—as early as 1819. By the 1850s the river was the bustling highway of hundreds of steamboats.


But it was a treacherous highway. Its changing course undercut trees along the banks and toppled them into the water, where the current pushed the tops downstream, stripping leaves and branches and turning them into lethal obstacles. A number of steamboats died spectacular deaths from fire or boiler explosions, but the majority of casualties came from these underwater hazards. The average Missouri River steamboat lasted five years; perhaps as many as 400 of them sank.


The Hawley family began a systematic search for boats that sank while bound upstream, knowing that their holds would be full of goods headed for the frontier. In their spare time the Hawleys visited little river towns, where they combed courthouse records, went through museums and libraries, and pored over old newspaper accounts, looking for clues. At last they assembled a list of 10 “possibles”: boats that, because of changes in the river’s course, might be accessible on land. And then the hard work began.

After securing permission to search on private properties, the men found themselves pushing through waist-high weeds, wading across marshes, clawing through head-high corn rows. Each signal from their handheld magnetometer, which could spot the presence of ferrous metals such as those used in a steamboat’s machinery, gave them hope. Using core-sampling drills, steel probes, shovels, and sometimes even backhoes, they pursued their river ghosts.

One by one, they checked off their list: the George Washington and the Radnor , not found; the Mars , probably found, but the search area was crisscrossed with oil pipelines, so too dangerous; the E. A. Ogden , partly under the river bottom; the William Baird , beneath a Corps of Engineers levee. Eventually only one prospect remained: the Arabia .