By Cristie B. Gardner,
All photos by David Hawley, Copyright 2002
The boat, that once carried some members of the Willie Handcart company, sank and was found 130 years later, buried 45 feet deep in a field.
note: click on pictures to enlarge
The "Big Muddy." The Missouri River. Some have said it's too thick to drink, too thin to plow. There's a reason for that: the fine silt of the glacier-swept prairie land is continually floating through the river water, which flows, hungrily devouring its own banks, as well as any obstacles in its path. The obstacles include fields, farms, houses, and even livestock.
In its heyday as a major transportation route, the Missouri River was a well-traveled channel for steamboats, which ferried passengers up and down the river, many of them to settlements where they began their overland journey west.
Pioneers faced danger on their journey-failed equipment, inadequate supplies, lack of potable water, death of livestock. On the steamboats, there were additional hazards. Fires were not uncommon, boilers blew up on occasion, but by far the most dangerous risk which steamboats often encountered was a submerged obstruction, called a "snag." Of the estimated 400 steamboats which sank, victims of the river, about 300 were downed by snags.
Such was the fate of the steamboat Arabia. Built in Brownsville, Pennsylvania in 1853, the Arabia was used during part of the same time period that later Latter-day Saint pioneers traveled across the plains. She ferried many of the members of the ill-fated Willie Handcart Company upriver to Council Bluffs, then called Winter Quarters, from which they launched their trek to the Great Salt Lake Valley. But in 1856, the Arabia met her fate. Traveling up the river, she hit a walnut tree which was beneath the river's surface. The huge trunk tore a gaping hole in the vessel, sinking her within a short time. Fortunately, all the passengers were saved, with the exception of one mule, which had been tied to a piece of sawmill equipment on the stern, and was forgotten in the panic as the boat sank.
The Aravia depicted in it's heyday
The Arabia quickly settled into the fine silt at the bottom of the river. By next morning, only the tops of the smokestacks and part of the pilothouse were visible. Even those soon disappeared as the river continued its relentless course. The passengers, who had their worldly goods stashed as part of the 220 tons of cargo, were resigned to their fate. Glad for their lives, they set out resolutely to replace their possessions.
Now, fast-forward over 130 years to 1987. David Hawley is part of a father and sons team who repair heating and air conditioning systems. As Dave puts it, "One day I was repairing an air conditioner for this guy, who was telling me that he searched for sunken ships, UFOs, and Bigfoot." The fellow told Dave that there were wrecks to be found which had sunk all along the Missouri River and along other waterways. Because they had then been covered with the fine silt of the river, they had been preserved in nearly an anaerobic state; hence, the lucky finder of one of these boats would have a "buried treasure" on their hands.
David Hawley on the Farm
Dave was slightly incredulous, but intrigued. The idea of finding a wreck wouldn't leave him, so he took his curiosity to the library, where he researched the idea of sunken vessels. It wasn't as far-out as it had seemed! Hawley continued his research and settled on the object of his quest: the steamboat Arabia. Using a metal detector and old river maps, he found the Arabia. She was located a half-mile from the banks of the current Missouri River in a Kansas cornfield, and she was 45 feet underground! The Hawley family contacted the farmer who owned the land where the Arabia lay buried. With his consent, the Hawleys made preparations to dig the ground as soon as the crops were harvested. Eighteen months later, massive excavation equipment arrived and began the search for the "buried treasure."
The months of preparation paid off. River Salvage, Incorporated, was ready to break ground on the site where the Arabia lay entombed. Bulldozers, backhoes, rigs to dig wells, and a crane weighing 100 tons assembled at the site. Because of the vessel's proximity to the river, the Hawleys also arranged for well digging equipment. The searchers had to determine the position of the steamboat so as to minimize damage during the excavation. The crew drilled and located the hull. Once the Arabia was outlined, well-diggers drilled wells to drop the water level. Wells pumped around the clock to send the water (as much as 20,000 gallons per minute) back into the Missouri River.
Dishware on Exhibit from the Arabia's Cargo
Excitement mounted. The hole got bigger and bigger, until it reached the dimensions of a football field. The excavation dug down and down. Three weeks and 45 feet after beginning, the crew was rewarded with a confirmation that they had found the Arabia. They found the timbers of the left paddlewheel! To the fascination of all involved, an artifact was located within the splintered timbers. It was a tiny shoe, made of rubber, and manufactured-over a hundred years ago, by Goodyear.
The finding was fun, but then the real work began. Crates, boxes and barrels were unearthed, full of frontier necessities and luxuries: medicines, perfumes, fancy figurines and practical carpenter's tools, thousands of bright calico buttons, guns, marbles, eyeglasses and precious windowpanes. "It's like a window into frontier life, with all the colors intact," says Dave. "When we think of that time period, often our imagination pictures it as black and white, or sepia, because those are the colors that photographs were capable of taking back then. But these are all in full color!" Hawley's personal favorite items that have been salvaged up to this point are the jars of pie filling. "The colors are remarkable. Brilliant blueberries, apple slices, rhubarb chunks. And they are all edible!"
18th Century Pie Fillings
The river's protective silt coating kept many of the items in perfect condition. Buttons and glassware needed but a rinse with clear water and drying off. Many cotton fabrics had long since disintegrated, leaving their lovely colors of burgundy, green, and blue to tint the surrounding mud. "But wools, silks, and beaver hair fabrics are in great shape," says Dave. Whereas the cotton fibers were of plant origin, the protein in the wools, silks and beaver hair fabrics held up over the years. "We have bolts of silk, wool and beaver hair that are over 100 yards long. We have lots of beaver hair coats, wool shirt and knitted sweaters you could still wear." Boots needed restitching, because the heavy thread used by the original boot makers had rotted away. Some metals needed cleaning and treatment to remove rust, and then they were coated with preservative.
Hardware on Display
Upon finding the wrecked Arabia, "our first thought was to sell the stuff," said Hawley. "But then we thought, we can't do that. This stuff is history!" So they began the Arabia Steamboat Museum. Today, located in Kansas City's historic River Market, the museum has thousands of items on display, including a lead typeset case from a Latter-day Saint Elder who had been traveling aboard the Arabia with plans and supplies to set up a printing shop. Visitors to the museum can observe workers who spend full time in the lab, preserving and cleaning the objects as they pull them out of wet or cold storage. Over 100 tons of the cargo have been cleaned, preserved, and are on display. The task that lies ahead is daunting: over 100 tons of cargo remain in the freezer, where they're cached until it's time to pull them out for treatment. "We'll be working on the cargo for another 10-15 years, at least," says Dave.
19th Century Clothing on Display
Dave, his brother Greg, and his dad and mom Bob and Florence are all busy at the museum, taking folks on tours and explaining about the tidbits of history that visitors can see as they go around the museum. It has become a family project, and definitely a labor of love. But chances are good you won't find them all there at the same time. Because Dave's out searching.
He's looking for another sunken steamboat.
Get more information about the Steamboat Arabia on their website at: http://www.1856.com/home.html
Aerial Photo of the Arabia Excavation Site
A worker excavates cleans the ship's sidings with a high power hose
A worker examines hardward that was on its way to Council Bluffs
Pickle jar found among the wreck
A small bell unearthed from the wreckage
Mormon Elders' Printers' Type
Paddle Wheel from the Arabia
Wagon Wheels from the Excavation
The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City's Historic River Market