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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 January 24, 1989, the Hawleys uncovered a jagged stump still lodged below Arabia's waterline—obviously the instrument of her demise. Today that otherwise nondescript snag is but one of hundreds of thousands of salvaged items on display in the Arabia Steamboat Museum, which opened on November 13, 1991, near the landing in Kansas City, Missouri, from which the vessel departed in 1856. The artifacts themselves converted the Hawleys from treasure hunters into historians. "We fell in love with the story of the Arabia," says 49-year-old Greg Hawley. "When we first broke ground, we didn't realize that it would turn out to be the greatest treasure of all." Soon, he says, "We realized that we had a national treasure on our hands. Starting a museum was the only logical step." The museum, whose state-of-the-art preservation laboratory processes some 700 objects from Arabia each year, attracts some 200,000 visitors annually. "It would have been easy for the Hawleys to break up that collection, but they didn't," says the Kansas State Historical Society's Bob Keckeisen. "They must be commended for seeing the greater significance in this collection."

Steamboats plying their trade are long gone from the waters of the Missouri. The Civil War, the collapse of the plantation economy and the coming of the cross-continental railroad spelled the end of river trade. A handful of steamboats continued to operate into the 20th century (and a few today have survived as tourist vessels), but the glory years would never return. Once-bustling landings have been overtaken by tangled thickets and woodland. Even the river itself has been tamed—by levees, dredging and channel reconfigurations that have stranded some former ports far inland. Yet the great, gray-green river still flows, smooth and wide beneath the wooded bluffs. And sometimes on a summer afternoon, it is still possible to see boys squatting amid the driftwood, old-fashioned fishing rods in hand, like a detail from a painting by George Caleb Bingham—a tantalizing glimpse of a time when Americans were filled with unbridled curiosity about the new continent, and a great white floating palace might at any moment come steaming around the next bend.

Writer Fergus M. Bordewich is the author of Bound for Canaan, a history of the underground railroad published last year.

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