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Treasure Ship

March 2024
10min read

How a group of prospectors, digging for a strike, turned up the whole mid-nineteenth century

There 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 .

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.

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.”


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.


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.

Having decided that the Arabia ’s cargo needed to stay together, the Hawleys now had to figure out what to do with it. Several museums wanted the collection, but Bob and his sons kept toying with the idea of creating their own place. Eventual revenue from a museum could help repay the cost of the task. The perfect match was made when Kansas City officials, in the process of revitalizing the old City Market area, approached the family with the idea that that location was right for a prime tourist attraction. Historically the spot made sense. The Market, founded in 1857, was close to the river and the site of the Arabia ’s last port of call.

As the work proceeded through January, the excavation phase of the project approached its end. Every trace of the adventure had to be eradicated before spring planting. Because of the difficulty of preserving wood, the only wooden pieces of the Arabia to be salvaged were part of the stern, the capstan, and the supporting structure for one paddle wheel. It was with very mixed emotions that the workers lifted the stern away from the rest of the Arabia .

On February 11, 1989, the pumps—20 of them by now—were shut down, and an eerie silence settled. The men watched solemnly as water began to trickle into the hole. “One timber at a time,” said Greg, “the Arabia was drowning for the second and last time.” No gold. But, summing up the adventure, Greg says, “Excavating the Arabia was like shaking hands with the pioneers. . . . I had met my forefathers through the items most precious in their lives.”

On November 13, 1991, three years to the day after excavation began, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened. A million and a quarter visitors have seen it, and the collection has opened eyes and minds to the reality of life on the frontier.

The Hawleys have chosen to display the entire cargo as it becomes available from the ongoing work of preservation. The sheer number of items from this single vessel can give a new understanding of the sort of material energy that helped fuel the nation’s westward expansion: A million nails, for instance, and 35,000 buttons. Half the 200-ton cargo is already on display, but the Hawleys estimate that preserving and restoring all the items still in storage will take more than 20 years.

Robert J. Keckeisen, director of the Kansas Museum of History, describes his reaction: “It’s a fabulous collection . . . a real window into the time period. A lot of people have a picture of the 1850s as just people living in rough log cabins. Certainly some were, but there were also people living in houses with finished construction and dining off fine china.”

The Hawleys call the Arabia a “floating Wal-Mart.” As for actual treasure, the lifelong prospectors found a total of 26 cents.


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