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Pay Dirt

When self-taught archaeologists dug up an 1850s steamboat, they brought to light a slice of American life

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On a steamy July day in 1987, David Hawley walked through rows of ripening Kansas corn, listening to chirps coming from a black box cradled in his hands. Somewhere below the cornfield, Hawley believed, lay the steamboat Arabia, which had struck a submerged tree or snag and, on September 5, 1856, vanished beneath the muddy waters of the Missouri River. As he pushed through the stalks with his magnetometer, which measures the intensity of the magnetic field beneath the earth's surface, Hawley figured he was about in the middle of what once had been the river's channel.

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"I didn't know where I was going, and I couldn't see very well through the corn," Hawley, 54, recalls. He had walked the field for the better part of the afternoon when the chirping suddenly accelerated. "I got real excited. It was like a bull's-eye. I knew I was there. I took a few more steps. It kept on jumping. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I said to myself, ‘I've got it! This is one big fish, and we're going to reel you in!'"

Inspired by tales of lost consignments of gold and valuable cargoes of whiskey, Hawley, his father, Bob, and younger brother, Greg, had searched for years for wrecks of sunken Missouri River steamboats, nearly 300 of which have been documented. By 1987, they had little more than old timbers to show for their efforts and, in one disappointing instance, a cargo of waterlogged salt pork. The Hawleys considered themselves treasure hunters who would sell what they found for whatever profit they could make. But the steamboat David Hawley stumbled onto that July afternoon would transform them into archaeologists, and in turn, preservationists, curators and fundraisers for a new museum. It would also enlarge historians' understanding of the American frontier and the era when the paddle wheel was queen of the Western waters.

From their research, the Hawleys knew that Arabia had been launched in 1853 on the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania; newspapers of the time described the boat as a "handsome and staunch packet...furnished throughout with the latest accommodations and improvements for the comforts of the passengers and conveyance of freight." They knew, too, that Arabia carried Mormon settlers on their way to Utah and soldiers to forts in distant Montana. Arabia had even played a role in the battle for "Bleeding Kansas," when pro-slavery men discovered crates of rifles destined for abolitionists in the ship's hold and nearly lynched the passengers who had brought them aboard. The Hawleys had also come across an eyewitness account of Arabia's last moments. "There was a wild scene on board," recalled a survivor named Abel Kirk. "The boat went down till the 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." Amazingly, considering that Arabia sank in less than ten minutes, all 130 passengers, and the crew, survived.

Bob Hawley, 77, calls his clan "just a run-of-the-mill blue-collar family," one that owned a refrigerator business in Independence, Missouri. Hawley's ancestors went West to join up with the first settlers in Utah. "My great-great-grandfather was told he had to get himself another wife," says Bob, "but he just couldn't make himself do it, so he left Utah in the dead of night." From his father, Gerry, a blacksmith, Bob inherited mechanical ingenuity and a stubborn perfectionism that would serve the Hawleys well in their quest to salvage Arabia.

By the time David had located the vessel, the Hawley men had already formed a partnership with an old friend, Jerry Mackey, who owned several local Hi-Boy restaurants, and with Kansas contractor Dave Luttrell. Having obtained permission to excavate from the farmer who owned the land, they now brought in diesel generators they had bought from a family in Missouri, pipe from Oklahoma and a secondhand crane they floated in by barge. (In 1988 the river was about half a mile from the site.)

The Hawleys began digging in mid-November, working 12- to 14-hour days, seven days a week. On dry days, sand worked its way into their ears, noses and mouths. During wet weather, the Hawleys fought mudslides and floods that surged unpredictably out of the spongy, soggy soil. To remove water from the site faster than it seeped in, Bob designed a system of pumps, each displacing 1,000 gallons per minute. The pumps had to be dismantled to prevent them from freezing at night, then laboriously reassembled the next morning.

Luttrell's bulldozers cut into what had once been the Missouri's channel until they were nearly 30 feet below ground level. On November 30, after 17 days of digging, a power shovel scraped across a piece of wood. It proved to be Arabia's larboard paddle wheel. A few days later, the top of a barrel appeared in the ooze. Jerry Mackey pried off the barrel's lid, and Bob Hawley reached down into mud and pulled out an assortment of cups and dishes—exquisite Wedgwood china. Bob Hawley ran to his car phone and called his wife, Florence. "Come on down here!" he shouted.

"I'm cooking chili," she protested.

"Forget the chili!" Bob bellowed. "We found it!"

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