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History in a cornfield Steamboat Arabia

Stewart Morris farms along the Missouri River near Levasey, Mo., just east of Kansas City. When David Hawley contacted him in the 1980s about a steamboat called Mars lying under his cornfield, “I thought it was a bunch of bull,” Morris says. He figured Hawley was searching for oil.

But Stewart’s respect grew in 1987 when David discovered the steamboat Arabia under another farmer’s cornfield nearby. Since 1856, when the Arabia launched from St. Louis, the Missouri River had shifted, eventually burying the 171-foot side paddle wheeler a half-mile from the river’s current course and 45 feet beneath the earth.  

It took the Hawley crew more than a year and a million dollars to excavate the Arabia, but she eventually yielded over 200 tons of cargo. You can see more than 100,000 of those treasures, including hatpins, silk and perfume, and Indian trade guns and beads, in the Arabia Steamboat Museum near the river in Kansas City, Mo.

“I take all of my out of town guests to the museum, and they’re flabbergasted,” Stewart said. “It’s just unbelievable that all that stuff was underground.” The venue attracts about 100,000 visitors a year.

Norman Sorter owned the farm where the Arabia was found. He and Stewart weren’t the only farmers to learn steamboats lay beneath their fields. In the 1800s, hundreds of riverboats hit snags and sunk as they carried passengers and supplies to the frontier. Since 1985, River Salvage, Inc., comprised of the Hawley family and friends, has discovered 10 such wrecks.

{gallery}March10/steamboat:200:260:1:2{/gallery}The Arabia sank in less than 10 minutes, yet all 130 passengers were rescued. The Hawley’s ran across this eyewitness account by survivor Abel Kirk: “There was a wild scene on board. Water came over the deck, and the boat keeled over on one side. The chairs and stools were tumbled about and many of the children nearly fell into the water.”

Of the few wrecks recovered along the Missouri, none compare to the Arabia’s treasure trove. “Arabia was en route to 16 towns and would have distributed goods to more than 25 merchants and individuals,” David said. “It sank miles before reaching its first scheduled stop, losing its entire load. None of us living today has witnessed the contents of such a vessel, until now. To see the total collection is fascinating.”

A view from the ground

Norman Sorter passed away since David found the Arabia on his land. We asked Stewart to describe the discovery process from a farmer’s point of view.

David contacted Stewart after learning of the Mars through newspaper, shipping and courthouse records. The Arabia sidetracked David for a few years, but eventually he came back with a GPS to map a grid of the fields. His magnetometer detected iron from the Mars’ machinery.

The findings piqued Stewart’s curiosity. “We knocked down a few rows of corn and beans to clear a path,” he said.

David drilled for samples, but unearthed only a tin can and a boot on the Mars, originally part of the Confederate Navy fleet. He later dug up records indicating that the Mars’ cargo was recovered shortly after it wrecked. The discouraging news cast doubt on the feasibility of a return on excavation investment. Still, Stewart remains satisfied with the adventure.

“My grandfather knew a steamboat was down there,” said Stewart, a retired air traffic controller. “I had my thrill just looking for it.” He and his wife, Caroline, farm on land his grandfather purchased in 1926.

A family affair

Stewart and Caroline got to know the Hawley’s over the years. “They’re a wonderful family,” Stewart said.

David, his father, Bob, and brother, Greg, operated Hawley Refrigeration Co., and searched for treasure in their spare time. Greg died in an auto accident in early 2009, but he helped the Arabia collection blossom into a museum that opened in 1991. Today, it’s a pilgrimage destination for Mark Twain buffs, Civil War enactors, Hollywood set designers, antique collectors, school groups, conventioneers and curious citizens.

When you enter the museum, you’ll see a life-sized model of the Arabia, its paddles slapping water. But it’s the volume of pristine-condition wares that will astound you, from boots to buckets and pickles to pickaxes. Bob and David lead tours. Florence runs the gift shop. Each of David’s and Greg’s kids have helped out.

The Hawley crew hit pay dirt with the Arabia beginning in Nov. 1988, assisted by partners Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell. Luttrell used his bulldozer to move earth. The team bought a crane to help dig a crater larger than a football field and deployed an army of irrigation pumps to clear 20,000 gallons of seepage per minute. After 17 long days in cold muck, they struck a paddlewheel. Soon after, they pried open a barrel to find 200 pieces of beautiful Wedgwood china. Bob called his wife, Florence, urging her to race to the site. She stalled—she was cooking chili.

“Forget the chili!” Bob yelled. “We found it!”

After that, “Every day seemed like Christmas,” David said. The team worked feverishly to beat the spring thaw. They researched how to preserve cargo, storing some in restaurant freezers owned by Mackey, and renting water tanks for wooden items. Bob and Florence’s home looked like a general store in a time warp.

Originally, the team planned to sell the booty to cover excavation costs. But after realizing the scope of this watery time capsule, they decided to keep the collection together in a museum. Landowner Norman Sorter first agreed to take 15 percent of any treasure recovered as payment. But once he laid eyes on the cargo, he contributed his share to the museum, keeping just a few items to hand down to his children.

“We started out seeking gold and treasure,” David said. “But history turned out to be the real treasure.”
It’s been more than 20 years since the team found Arabia. Yet curators will painstakingly clean muck and rust from the 220 tons of cargo for another decade or two.

Coming soon to your farm?

Farmers are known for fixing machinery on the fly with baling wire and elbow grease. It took that same kind of versatility and perseverance to find, excavate, restore and display the Arabia’s cargo. Today, the Hawleys spend most days at the museum, but continue to operate the refrigeration business in Independence, Mo.

“We grew up trouble-shooting refrigeration problems and working with our hands to correct issues,” David said. “Digging the boat and operating the museum is much the same.”

If you farm along the Missouri, don’t be surprised if David and Bob come calling with visions of sunken treasure below your beans. “We’d like to excavate a boat from another time period and compare its collection to that of the Arabia,” David said.

David has met with countless landowners over the years. “I’ve searched many farm properties only to discover the object of my search lay elsewhere,” he said. “In the early days, some farmers were reluctant for fear of liability, damage or the government condemning their property. But many of the farmers I talk with now days have visited the museum and welcome my search.”

To learn more, visit or call (816) 471-1856. 

Cargo surprises historian

When he first visited the Arabia Steamboat Museum, Bob Keckeisen was “surprised by the amount and variety of what fine goods they were sending up the river just two years after Kansas became a territory. Those fancy crystal doorknobs and brass hinges were not going into sod huts.”

As director of the Kansas State Historical Society Museum in Topeka, he had read steamboat cargo lists. “But it’s only when you get a first-hand look that you realize people wanted fine things as soon as possible,” he said.

The Hawley’s called many conservation experts, including one at the Kansas society, to learn about preservation. “They really did it right, and they developed a passion for interpreting what they found,” Keckeisen said. “It’s a great story—not just the Arabia, but the Hawley family.” He visits the museum frequently.

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