- Historic Sites
How a group of prospectors, digging for a strike, turned up the whole mid-nineteenth century
April/May 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 2
Quite a bit of information was available concerning the Arabia ’s location. There had been several previous salvage attempts, all unsuccessful. Judge Norman Sortor’s family had owned land along the Missouri since 1864. Over the years the riverbed had migrated north, turning Elisha Sortor’s original 36 acres into 100. Through three generations treasure hunters had approached the family about searching for the Arabia . When the Hawleys called, Judge Sortor said, “If you want to shoot craps with your money, then come on ahead.”
In July 1987 David Hawley and Norman Sorter drove out into Sortor’s cornfield. They spent two hours working with the magnetometer, walking up and down the rows, before David got the telltale readings that revealed the Arabia ’s grave, half a mile away from the river that had buried her.
It would be more than a year before the actual excavation could begin. Lots of planning needed to be done to make this attempt succeed where others had failed. Could they complete the project in the few months between the harvest and the spring planting? How could they combat the ground water that had defeated earlier excavators, and what would they do with it?
Bob Hawley came up with a scheme using 12 pumps and 3 generators. They would dig a channel to the river to take away the water, and the channel would have to be lined with plastic to keep the liquid from washing away the farmer’s topsoil. Large machinery, including a 100-ton crane, would be needed to move earth and equipment.
In the fall of 1988, after the crops had been harvested, the treasure hunters began the task of outlining the boat. Drilling carefully to minimize any damage, they felt their way down to 35 feet when the drill’s violent shaking showed that the bit had struck something solid. Marking the spot with a red flag, the men kept drilling holes until they had defined a 171-foot-by-54-foot outline in the shape of the Arabia .
Next came a more invasive test, core sampling. If they were right, there should be a top layer of pine from the deck, then a layer of various materials from the cargo hold, and a final layer of oak from the hull. First sample: only hull—no deck, no cargo, a bad sign. Second sample: steel. Third sample: cargo at last, but only stacks of lumber. Morale sagged. Was this how the adventure would end? One more sample, and this time the core revealed bits of broken glass and nails. They had hit a crate of new merchandise. Even with no indication of valuables, their curiosity overcame caution. They had come too far to quit. The excavation would begin.
Now security arrangements had to be made, and a key player added to the team, an archeologist who would document the excavation and the artifacts it revealed.
On November 13, 1988, the sound of engines filled the early-morning air as workers began to clear what would become the excavation pit and dig the wells that would let water be pumped out of it. By the end of a long, tiring day, three wells had been sunk to a depth of 60 feet. Day after day the work continued. The weather turned cold, treating the crew to bouts of rain, sleet, and even occasional snow. On November 30, at a depth of 27 feet, a backhoe’s bucket, cutting through the sand, jarred against something. All the workers poured into the pit. Using long probes and shovels with eager delicacy, fearful of damaging their find, they uncovered a board from one of the Arabia ’s giant paddle wheels.
Installation of more wells followed, and the digging continued by hand as the wheel’s structure poked up through the mire. On December 1 a shout from Jerry—“Look, a shoe!”—signaled the first real artifact. Caught in the timbers of the giant wheel was a small rubber shoe. The edges and sole were worn, but on the bottom the words Goodyears Rubber Co., 1849 were still legible.
The following days were long and discouraging. Bitter cold necessitated a tiring evening ritual of dismantling pumps and rolling up hoses to keep them from freezing overnight. Dry sand blew over the sides of the pit and into eyes and noses, while the jets of water rinsing away sand and mud threw up mist that froze on workers’ clothes and skin. But the treasure seekers kept at it. As they uncovered the deck, they came upon the triple boiler; one of the fire doors stood open, perhaps a sign that wood was being fed in when the ship hit the snag. Partially burned logs lay inside the firebox, remnants of a blaze quenched more than 130 years before.
With 11 wells pumping out 11,000 gallons of water per minute and a good section of the deck revealed, other items appeared. In the midafternoon of December 5, the mud yielded up a barrel. As the others crowded around, Jerry pried the top off, revealing glints of shiny china in the muck. Piece by piece, the dishes, Davenport and Wedgwood Ironstone, pitchers, and glassware were pulled tenderly from the resistant mud and sopping packing straw. The single barrel contained 178 pristine pieces.