Pay Dirt

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

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Aware that exposure to oxygen would quickly destroy fabric and metal alike, the Hawleys stored the china, clothing, tools and thousands of other objects they removed from Arabia in commercial freezers at Mackey's restaurants. Wooden artifacts, including timbers, needed to be stored in water to prevent them from shrinking and cracking. For this, the Hawleys rented huge tanks. (Preservation experts told them to stabilize metal with tannic acid, and store organic materials in a solution of polyethylene glycol.)

Bob and Florence Hawleys' suburban house soon took on the look of a bizarre 19th-century general store. Boots soaked in Tupperware bowls. Tin coffeepots and cups hung from backyard trees. Millions of beads filled bowls all over the kitchen. Florence sewed coats, shirts and shoes back together, blocked hats and loosened impacted mud from beads. "Every time I walked by one of those bowls of beads, I'd slosh it, until little by little they gradually separated from the mud," she recalls.

"I was taken aback when I saw all these items," Bob Keckeisen, director of the Kansas State Historical Society Museum, in Topeka, told me. "It really challenged our idea of what life was like on the frontier just two years after Kansas became a territory. It's a real surprise that such goods were available. They show us that settling and town building were happening all at once, and that people wanted nice things and some could afford them." The variety of goods also challenge the idea that the West was primarily a ‘safety valve' for people who had run out of options in the East. Adds Keckeisen: "The settlers who were ordering these things were middle-class people, who bought nice goods as soon as they could."

Steamboating on western rivers began in 1811, just four years after Robert Fulton's steam-driven Clermont first chugged up the Hudson River. By the mid-1850s, some 60 steamboats were plying the Missouri alone, from the levees of St. Louis to remote Army posts nearly 2,000 miles away. "The river was the I-70 of its day," says Kathy Borgman, executive director of the Friends of Arrow Rock, a local preservation group in Arrow Rock, Missouri, a former river port between St. Louis and Kansas City. "The whole world came through on the riverboats." Indeed, steamboats were floating microcosms of mid-19th-century America, where traders, gamblers and speculators of every stripe rubbed shoulders with Missouri slave owners, Mormons and mountain men. Free Staters en route to Kansas mingled with Indians on their way home from Washington, D.C., emigrants bound for Oregon or the California gold fields, Yankee businessmen, and bullwhackers who drove the wagon trains that crossed the plains.

Compared with navigating the broad Mississippi, the Missouri was notoriously difficult. The river was a kind of giant dodgem course, "whose alluvial banks," wrote Mark Twain, himself an apprentice pilot in the 1850s, "cave and change constantly, whose snags are always hunting up new quarters, whose sand-bars are never at rest, whose channels are forever dodging and shirking, and whose obstructions must be confronted in all nights and all weathers without the aid of a single lighthouse or a single buoy."

"It is the hungriest river ever created," one observer said. "It is eating all the time—eating yellow clay banks and cornfields, eighty acres at a mouthful; winding up its banquet with a truck garden and picking its teeth with the timbers of a big red barn." During dry spells, when the river shrank to the depth of a pond, steamboat captains had to order a pair of stout timbers, or spars, lowered point-down into the sand at the front of the boat, then driven forward by the paddle wheel. "It was like attempting to walk on stilts, or more like jumping onto stilts," says Robert Mullen, the collections manager at the Missouri Historical Society, in St. Louis. "It would lift the boat a few inches just to advance it a few inches."

But the steamboats were also magical apparitions, floating palaces with glamorous interiors. Images of sunbursts and famous battles embellished paddle-wheel boxes; the tops of smokestacks bore cutout silhouettes of exotic plumes or ferns; colorful pennants snapped on the wheelhouse. When a boat neared shore, a calliope struck up a polka or the Virginia reel, its strains floating across the water like a promise of deliverance. Staterooms finished in mahogany were appointed with silk draperies and rich carpets. Entering the saloon of a riverboat, wrote Twain, was "like gazing through a splendid tunnel" which "glittered with no end of prism-fringed chandeliers." The cuisine was equally impressive, although the menu for a typical buffet in 1852 may appeal rather less to the modern palate: beef, veal, pork, liver sauce, venison, boiled tongue, plus "side dishes" of mutton, pork ragout, beef heart and "calf head à la mode."

Steamboats could be hugely profitable; a paddle wheeler that cost about $15,000 to build could earn as much as $80,000 in a single journey. But their lives tended to be short; a Missouri steamboat rarely lasted more than three years. Boats caught fire, blew up and sank routinely. Between 1830 and 1840 alone, an estimated 1,000 lives were lost on Western rivers.

By far the greatest danger, however, was posed by snags, which accounted for almost two out of three of the steamboats lost on the Missouri. Twain describes the scene: "The whole vast face of the stream was black with drifting dead logs, broken boughs, and great trees that had caved in and been washed away. It required the nicest steering to pick one's way through this rushing raft, even in the daytime, when crossing from point to point; and at night the difficulty was mightily increased; every now and then a huge log, lying deep in the water, would suddenly appear right under our bows, coming head-on; no use to try to avoid it then; we could only stop the engines, and one wheel would walk over that log from one end to the other, keeping up a thundering racket and careening the boat in a way that was very uncomfortable to passengers. Now and then we would hit one of these sunken logs a rattling bang, dead in the center, with a full head of steam, and it would stun the boat as if she had hit a continent."

The river nearly claimed the Hawleys as well. One morning during excavation of Arabia, Bob and Greg were working knee-deep in mud when a sudden rush of groundwater overtook them. Struggling to free themselves from the glutinous muck, they were trapped in the rising waters. Only a providential occurrence prevented tragedy: collapsing sand sealed the fissure that had opened. Bob managed to escape just as the water reached his chest. "A short man would have died down there," Greg joked afterward.


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