Modern day treasure hunters uncover history from the 1800s

As a young boy from Independence, Missouri, Greg Hawley dreamed of finding buried treasure. One day, Greg found himself sitting among the company of his father, Bob, the owner of a refrigeration business, his brother Dave, and their family friend Jerry Mackey, who owned the restaurant they were gathered in. The four gathered in the booth, and listened to Greg’s older brother Dave tell about a customer who “claimed that several steamers sank during the 1800s and their oaken hulls and cargo remain hidden in the river valley.”

The story sparked their interests, and the group began gleaning through newspapers and traveling around the countryside in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. Steamboats were a common way to travel and transport supplies primarily during the 1850s through 1860s. Some estimate that over 400 steamships sank during their Golden Age, while actual reports from the United States Corps of Engineers record a total of 289. Of all the steamboats traveling along the Missouri River, seventy percent sunk due to snags, leaving the ships with a life expectancy of five years. This critical information left the treasure hunters with a likely chance of making their dreams a reality.

The Steamboat Arabia Museum in downtown Kansas City houses a replica of the steamships paddle wheel. The upper cabins of the Steamboat Malta remain intact, unlike that of the Arabia.

A display inside the museum contains various skeleton keys. The group faced many obstacles when preserving contents of the Arabia that had been in the soil for over 100 years.

A keg of doorknobs rests among other artifacts salvaged from the Arabia steamship. The museum has a rolling pin on display that flattened before proper preservation techniques could save it.

In 1988, the Steamboat Arabia was located in a farmer’s field in Kansas, only a half-mile from where the Missouri River flows today. The Arabia reached its fate a year after it began its work on the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi Rivers in 1855. Greg Hawley wrote, “The tree ripped through the three-inch thick oak hull, penetrating a full ten feet, and scattering cargo in all directions. ”

The group of treasure hunters learned of the many failed attempts to recover the steamship, which had rested for over 100 years on the property of Judge Norman Sorter. Despite the possibility of having their vision shattered, the Hawley family contacted Sorter.

Greg recalls the judge stating, “I’d rather you boys forget digging the Arabia. A lot of folks have tried, but all have failed, and I’d hate to see you spend a lot of money for nothing.”

The team persisted negotiating with Sorter while becoming innovators in recovering steamships sunk on the Missouri River. During the excavation, the crew found evidence of the first recorded salvage attempt in 1877, belonging to Henry Tobener and Robert Treadwell, whose search never reached the Arabia.

The family worked alongside experts to learn techniques in preserving the artifacts that had rested 35 feet under the soil in what once was a freshwater environment. Greg Hawley said the team worked closely with the Canadian Conservation Institute and the Canadian Parks Service who “provided vital information on rust removal and protective coatings for metals, appropriate soaps and methods for cleaning textiles, procedure for freeze drying of woods and leathers, and proper handling and storage techniques for all artifacts.”

After three years of excavation, the Hawley family opened a for-profit museum in downtown Kansas City on Nov. 13, 1991. They reached their goal to display treasures from the Arabia to the public without public or government funding through an investment of $1,450,000. They continue to restore the 220 tons of cargo that went down with the Arabia when it sunk on Sept. 5, 1856.

Only half of the findings from the Arabia are on display at the museum ranging from the steamship’s hull, to a jar of pickles, bolts of fabric, and various firearms.

“During our three years spent researching the Missouri River steamboats, our families developed an all-encompassing passion for the river and the people it touched,” said Greg Hawley.

Greg Hawley’s older brother, David has located 11 buried steamships throughout his 30-year search. He spent two years walking in a farmer’s field in hopes of locating another sunken steamship in Malta Bend, Missouri. After wandering an overall distance of 300 miles, David located the Steamboat Malta. It is possibly the only sunken steamship on the Missouri River to provide the namesake of a town.

“He doesn’t have much give up in him,” Mackey said. “Our whole group is pretty much that way.”

After successfully recovering artifacts on the Steamboat Arabia and providing a museum that cannot contain all of its cargo, the possibility of digging up the Steamboat Malta may seem redundant.

When deciding whether recovering the Malta was worth the risk, the team analyzed the steamship’s possible contents. David Hawley said, “If the Malta had been going downriver instead, toward St. Louis, toting furs or buffalo hides, its cargo would not be worth digging up at an estimated $2 million cost, twice what the group spent unearthing the Arabia.”  (Kansas City Star).

Fortunately, samples determined the Malta was headed upriver, transporting supplies westward. They will begin to unearth another steamship this fall when temperatures decrease and are less stressful to unearth artifacts preserved underground for 178 years.

“We are going to find a collection of things that no one’s ever seen,” David Hawley said. “No one’s ever uncovered an 1840s Indian trade ship ever before and to find over 100 tons of things, things that will confirm what we knew about that time in history, but there is so much that we don’t know.”

The goal is to provide an exhibition that is organized as a timeline of steamboat history, with the possibility of an entire steamship at the beginning of the museum. One can see the largest collection of pre Civil War artifacts at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in downtown Kansas City and gain more information by visiting the website at 1856.com.

In Greg Hawley’s book, Treasure in a Cornfield, Hawley stated, “It is my hope this story will ignite within you a spark of adventure; for me, the memories will sustain and entertain me when I am no longer able to walk the river’s edge.”

Nichole Gann

About the Author Nichole Gann

Growing up in the farming community of Marshall, Missouri, I gained an appreciation for agriculture, which is sometimes overlooked. I was involved in the 4-H Shooting Sports program for nine years and competed four years at the National 4-H Shooting Sports competition. My time learning various life skills in the program provided me with a greater foundation to serve the interests of our community through agricultural communication. It gives me reassurance to assist youth in becoming leaders of tomorrow through my service as a 4-H volunteer. I have an appreciation for all things old, from listening to vintage records, traveling to historic locations, quilting, wandering through antique stores and typing on my manual typewriter. I find that we can all benefit from expanding our minds, whether it is by understanding our past or planning for our future. I look forward to serving you this semester as a reporter for CAFNR Corner Post.