- 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
Almost immediately the elation was tempered by reality. More pumps were needed to uncover the stern section, but the family’s investment had reached a quarter of a million dollars (it would reach half a million the next month). Greg worried about losing his home. Juggling the demands of the refrigeration business, working on the wreck, and finding time to spend with their families made the Hawleys’ days long and hectic. Worsening weather made the work miserable, and, as their finds were exposed to air, the necessity of devising methods of protecting them became obvious. According to Greg Hawley, “Our only big concern as we began to find objects was stabilization. We were going to dig and sell. We knew we had to create an environment as good as the original. Since our family business is environmental control, we had a good handle on it.”
THE FAMILY’S INVESTMENT REACHED HALF A MILLION DOLLARS. GREG WORRIED ABOUT LOSING HIS HOME.
Stopgap measures were quickly put in place. Refrigerators and freezers at restaurants operated by Jerry Mackey were commandeered, limestone caves in Independence, Missouri, provided underwater storage for other articles, and basements at the workers’ houses became temporary warehouses.
Each day brought new surprises. With cargo to provide all the necessities of life, the variety of items was vast: two prefabricated houses and 10 tons of lumber, plus nails, screws, doorknobs, and windowpanes; clothing and accessories, such as bolts of fabric, boots from gold-trimmed to galoshes, belts, and long underwear; household items, among them china, mirrors, candles, lamps; saddles, tack, wagon parts; medicines, including pine tar, Mexican Mustang Lineament, and Dr. J. Hostetter’s Stomach Bitters; spiced pigs’ feet, butter and cheese, bottled fruits and pickles, spices, coffee; and luxuries like champagne, cognac, and perfume. The discovery of a small porcelain doll wrapped in a wool sock tucked in a workman’s toolbox brought delight and speculation.
The Hawleys’ efforts had been reported mainly in the local press, but now, as word got out about the extent of their finds, skeptical professionals came to inspect the site. Concerned about procedures used in earlier excavations, Tom Witty, the Kansas State archeologist, and his associates descended on the Arabia . Witty immediately recognized the value of the wreck. “Of all the work I’ve done, this was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen. To go down into that hole and put my hand on the side of that hull—I was in awe of the site.”
The archeologists had approached the excavation ready to protest. Witty, now retired, recalls, “If they had been damaging things, we were ready to march on the legislature and demand laws to protect the Arabia and its artifacts. But they were doing a great job. They knew what they were doing.”
As the excavation continued, the adventurers came to the realization that the value of the collection lay in the whole, not the parts. “When I first visited the site,” Tom Witty says, the Hawleys “were treasure hunters. By the fourth time they were going to keep these things. They were making all the right moves and had it in their heads to preserve the Arabia .” The cargo represented the largest assemblage of pre-Civil War artifacts ever discovered.
The colors of the items fascinated the Hawleys. Daguerreotypes of the time give an impression of a monochromatic world, but shirts and jackets in brilliant red, green, and blue wool painted a Technicolor picture of antebellum life. Preserved cherries and pickled relishes looked just put up, and a bottle of perfume, when opened, added a scent of nostalgia to the permeating bouquet of diesel fuel and wet mud.
GREG SAYS THAT “EXCAVATING THE ‘ARABIA’ WAS LIKE SHAKING HANDS WITH THE PIONEERS. . . .”
Previously the Hawleys had worried only about stabilizing the objects. Now they began to research preservation methods. Conservators of the Bertrand , a steamboat that had sunk in the river near Omaha in 1865 and been recovered in the 1960s (see sidebar), provided some help, but the Hawleys sought more contemporary techniques. Experts at the Smithsonian suggested contacting members of the team that had recovered the Mary Rose , an early-sixteenth-century warship that had been raised in the English Channel in 1982. But while their expertise was extremely helpful in dealing with wood, they knew salt water best, so they referred the Hawleys to the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Historic Resource Conservation Branch of the Canadian parks service, which gave them vital information on freshwater preservation.