The discovery of the buried 1856 riverboat Arabia and its 200 tons of cargo began with a house call to repair the refrigerator of “some old character” whose name has been forgotten. Refrigeration company co-owner David Hawley showed up for that repair in the 1980s and recently told me the man had three walls covered with newspaper and magazine clippings: one wall of UFOs, another of Bigfoot or something similar, and a third wall with clippings about sunken steamships. This last was the only one he “could get into,” he said with a smile during my visit to the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
David Hawley read old newspapers and maps to find the nearby Arabia. He was joined in his treasure hunt by his father Bob, brother Greg and family friends Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell.
In 1987, they visited the owner of a farm, a retired judge, and told them they believed there was an old steamboat filled with cargo deep below his field, a half-mile from the Missourri River. (The river shifted course after the steamboat sank.) To their surprise, Judge Sortor said he knew, and that his ancestor Elijah Sortor had known when he bought the land in 1860. The story, and the exact location, had been passed down through the generations.
The next step, said one discoverer, was like playing the board game Battleship. Test drillings encountered the hull, and to find the perimeter of the boat, the men used a magnetometer and planted orange flags in the soil.
The water table was only ten feet below ground, thirty-five feet above the main deck. Massive pumping was required so that the hole would not fill with water.
First, they found wood from the ship, then a shoe. The contents of the first barrel dazzled them. It was packed with beautiful china.
One discoverer recounted in the museum’s film that the family went home and stayed up late into the night, thrilled. They knew they would find 200 tons of cargo from 1856. He said on that night he realized that this collection should not be sold piecemeal or broken up. Judge Sortor, the owner of the land, agreed.
The treasure included everything a frontier settler, rich or poor, might expect to find in a store. My previous post describes the find, some of which is on display at the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
Once unearthed, the artifacts needed to be preserved, and quickly. The discoverers, some of whom owned a refrigeration company, installed huge coolers in caves. Some dug a hole (80x20x10 feet), put in artifacts, and kept a garden hose turned on for two and a half years while they contacted museums for advice. The solution was polyethylene glycol.
How much did all this cost? A cool million.
One discoverer described this project as a joy for the family and friends. I visited the museum twice, and each time the lights came up after the movie, a member of the Hawley family stood in front to welcome us and answer any questions. That’s how I got to chat with David Hawley and ask him about the day he learned about sunken steamboats and buried treasure.