Museum showcases steamboat found under cornfield

By Betsa Marsh - Miami Herald

But another contingent zeroes in on the region’s quirky collections, from Marilyn Monroe’s locks at Leila’s Hair Museum to TWA’s paper flight attendant dresses at the Airline History Museum.

And who can resist the bullet hole in the Jesse James Home where that dirty coward Robert Ford shot the outlaw in 1882 ?

But lovers of the roadside bizarre hit the jackpot with Kansas City’s Arabia Steamboat Museum.

Museum owner David Hawley was as susceptible to the lure of shipwrecks and buried treasure as the next explorer. His distinctive siren call, however, drew him not to the Atlantic or Pacific, but to a Kansas cornfield.

His quest was for the Arabia, a side-wheel steamboat that was only 3 years old when she rammed a log and sank in the muddy Missouri River in 1856. Hawley was undaunted when his research indicated that the wreck was probably under Judge Norman Sortor’s corn crop.

The Missouri River had moved east a half mile, leaving the steamboat shell and her mystery cargo buried under 45 feet of river-bottom silt. Once the Sortor family gave permission for exploration, Hawley arrived with his proton magnetometer.

“I walked back and forth across that field,” Hawley recalled. “It didn’t take long before the metal detector picked up the boilers.”

Hawley was on his way to unearthing — literally — one of the great shipwrecks in American history. Today, the boat’s treasures gleam at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City’s historic City Market.

Hawley quickly spread shipwreck fever among his family and friends. His father, Bob, and late brother Greg were soon digging side by side, along with friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, all partners in River Salvage Inc.

The quintet knew they were searching for a fully loaded steamboat, provisioned in St. Louis and headed for pioneer settlements in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska. But what condition would that antebellum cache be in now, after 132 years?

On Dec. 5, 1988, they found out. The adventurers pried the lid off an oak barrel and pulled out a muddy but intact china bowl, the first of 200 unbroken pieces unearthed that day.

It was the start of a flood of artifacts, more than 200 tons pulled from the mire of the Arabia’s holds. Hundreds of hats, thousands of boots, cases of still-green pickles — a sunken emporium rising again to the surface.

“This is the largest wet organic collection of artifacts in any archaeological site in the world,” said Hawley, who asked advice from preservationists around the globe.

The partners took on the massive cleaning and restoration task themselves, turning Bob and Flo Hawley’s kitchen into a preservation lab.

“We didn’t have any money for food anyway,” David Hawley joked.

The partners initially financed the project themselves, raising $200,000. “We did great [with that] for three weeks,” said Hawley, who worked in the family refrigeration business. “Then we went to the bank and borrowed some, then went back again and borrowed some more.”

The greatest expense was the equipment and supplies for 20 dewatering wells to pump groundwater away from the excavation pit, working at a furious 20,000 gallons a minute. Friends and family members donated their time to the project that ran round the clock for four months.

The cadre salvaged all the artifacts and parts of the Arabia herself, finally allowing the groundwater to reclaim the hull in 1989.

Not content with homespun detection, salvage and preservation, River Salvage Inc. decided to design its own museum, too. “We were originally going to sell what we found,” Hawley said, “but it was such a neat collection we didn’t want to break it up.”

Today, the power of the Arabia Steamboat Museum is its sheer volume. Not one thimble, but a phalanx of thimbles. Not one pair of children’s boots, but a wall of boots.

China displays worthy of a department store. Hundreds of hammers, keys, whale oil lamps, clay pipes, hat pins, bottled medicines, matches and candles: All were on their way to waiting settlers in the West.

The international scope of the goods is impressive, too: Chinese silk, English Wedgwood china, Bohemian trade beads and French perfumes, one of which has been duplicated in the museum’s own 1856 brand.

Some finds surprised even professional historians, such as the rubber shoes patented by Goodyear in 1849. “A living history settlement near here now lets its re-enactors wear rubber shoes, because they were on the Arabia in 1856,” Flo Hawley said. “They thought they came much later.

“The rubber items are the only things that no one’s been able to help us preserve, because they didn’t think rubber could last this long.” The rubber shoes on display were merely washed to remove a century of accumulated muck; there are 250 more awaiting preservation.

About half of the Arabia’s artifacts are on display in the large museum. Others are frozen in blocks of ice, awaiting preservation, a process that could take 20 more years.

Each explorer has a favorite find. David Hawley’s is the food.

The Arabia was stocked with oysters, sardines, coffee beans, pickles, ketchup, bottled pie filling and crates of gin, cognac and still-bubbly champagne. The excavators toasted each other with the champagne, “and one of our guys ate one of the sweet pickles,” David Hawley said. “He’s still alive today.

“The blueberry and cherry pie fillings were amazing. We would take them out of the packing straw and the sun would shine on those bottles and it looked like you could go home and make a pie with it.”

One of the most disquieting artifacts is a bleached, twisted walnut tree trunk almost two feet in diameter -- the recovered snag that took the steamboat to the bottom.

The log pierced the hull and smashed the timbers, causing Arabia to take on water and sink 15 feet to the river bottom.

Over the years as the river shifted course, silt and sand bars built up in the Missouri — too thick to drink, too thin to plow — until the Arabia was 45 feet beneath Judge Sorter’s cornfield.

Arabia was just one of 300 to 400 steamboats estimated to lie in the graveyard of the Missouri.

After two decades of research, excavation and restoration, David Hawley’s shipwreck fever rages unchecked.

“I’d like to find a steamboat that went down in the 1830s,” he said, “and take the whole boat and cargo out. That would be a phenomenal exhibit.”

His father, Bob, adds the only cautionary note to his son’s treasure-hunting ardor. “There’s one little saying our wives have: ‘One boat, one wife.’ ”

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