Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Sunken Treasures of the Arabia

Published in Wall Street Journal on September 4, 2013



In 1987, a group of treasure hunters discovered a steamboat buried deep in a Kansas cornfield. This was the Arabia, a side-wheeler whose hull was pierced by a submerged tree on Sept. 5, 1856, near Parkville, Mo., 6 miles north of Kansas City. The ship, just three years old, had embarked from St. Louis, steaming westward on the Missouri to deliver merchandise to 16 frontier towns. The cargo included 20,000 feet of lumber, 4,000 shoes and boots, two prefab homes destined for Logan, Neb., a sawmill and fixtures, and a case of Otard Dupuy & Co. cognac.

Although the Arabia went down in 15 feet of water, all of its 130 passengers reached shore on the ship’s skiff—the only fatality was a mule tied to the deck. Within days, the Missouri’s silt began to engulf the wreck; within weeks the ship had sunk from sight.

On a recent trip to Kansas City, I marveled at the thousands of objects from the side-wheeler on display in the fascinating Steamboat Arabia Museum here. The story of how they got there is almost as enthralling as the objects themselves.

It all began when treasure hunters Bob Hawley and his sons David and Greg began to search for the wreck after hearing tales of its sinking. From the Arabia’s manifest, which a crewmember gave to a St. Louis newspaper shortly after the sinking, the Hawleys learned the locations the steamboat was to visit, what it was carrying and the names of the merchants awaiting its goods. They then consulted a 19th-century map marking the sites of shipwrecks on the river and zeroed in on a cornfield in Parkville, the location where they thought the Arabia was buried. Over the years, the Missouri had meandered half a mile from where the ship went down and the river’s thick silt had turned the site into farmland.

A metal detector located the iron boilers and then test bores found the perimeters of the ship. Around them the Hawleys dug a series of wells to 65 feet and began pumping out huge amounts of ground water; 20 pumps ran day and night for four months, removing 20,000 gallons a minute until the excavation was able to fully uncover the Arabia.

Amazingly, the mud covering the boat had created an oxygen-free environment that had perfectly preserved the cargo, providing a unique time capsule of the American West on the eve of the Civil War.

After the last box was dug out of the ship’s hold and the backbreaking months of labor in the freezing, waterlogged wintertime excavation ended, the Hawleys realized that they could not bring themselves to sell off the Arabia’s contents. They became caretakers instead of treasure hunters, as they understood that “the real wealth of the collection was not about selling it to somebody—it’s keeping it together.”

That meant creating a museum large enough to display the tons of rescued cargo. They consulted museum design firms; the lowest estimate was a staggering $5.5 million. The Hawleys didn’t have that kind of money, so with the help of extended family, friends and money borrowed from the bank, they built a 35,000-square-foot museum for less than half a million dollars with the can-do entrepreneurial spirit that characterizes the entire enterprise. And they did it without any state or federal support, something they are proud of.

The museum, near the landing where the Arabia made its last stop on its final voyage, now has 20 employees and about 80,000 visitors annually from around the world, but it’s still very much of a family affair. The Hawleys kept their day jobs as refrigerator repairmen, but father Bob and son David are often at the museum to welcome visitors, and Florence Hawley, Bob’s wife, runs the gift shop. Unfortunately, Greg passed away in 2009.

But before the new museum could open, the objects, now exposed to air and in danger of rapid deterioration, had to be conserved. While the Hawleys sought advice on how to do this, they stored objects in huge water-filled tubs, in caves and even in restaurant freezers. The U.S. curatorial and conservation establishment sniffed at these outsiders. But help was at hand in several conservation labs in Sweden, Canada and the United Kingdom, from which the Hawleys learned how to preserve the Arabia’s contents. In turn, they taught volunteer conservators who still work on thousands of items yet to be treated, and their lab is now part of the museum tour.

The museum’s collection is an Aladdin’s cave of objects from the year 1856, ranging from the Arabia’s towering paddlewheel and huge boilers to thousands of tiny buttons in countless patterns and colors. Rather than paying for high-price museum design consultants, the entrepreneurial Hawleys studied department-store design to display the Arabia’s goods in the most eye-appealing manner.

Much of what was needed to build the American West is on exhibition: a carpentry shop; axes, wood planes, window glass, nails, locks, door knobs. There are pistols, rifles—possibly being smuggled to abolitionists in the Kansas Territory—hundreds of pocket knifes, and innumerable Indian trade beads.

Here also are the pioneers’ daily needs. To clothe them: boots and shoes—including some made of rubber, the earliest ever found—bolts of cloth, hundreds of beaver hats, pants and dresses, all looking like they were made yesterday. To light their houses: 3,000 tallow candles and faceted-glass whale-oil lamps and flasks. To cook their food: pots, pans, muffin tins, and skillets. To sate their hunger and thirst: spiced pigs’ feet and sardines, pie fillings, pickles (still-edible), kegs of ale, whiskey. To stock their medicine cabinets: castor oil, Barrell’s Indian Liniment, and dozens of medicine bottles still filled with unknown liquids of dubious curative value.

Along with the necessities, the Arabia carried luxury goods not usually associated with life on the frontier. Bottles of still-fragrant perfumes, champagne, silk cloth and brandied cherries from France, along with hundreds of beautiful pieces of patterned porcelain tableware from England, show the desire for international finery, even on the remote Missouri. Other luxury goods, including jewelry and silk dresses, were produced in the U.S. and brought to St. Louis for shipment up river.

Thanks to the Hawleys’ extraordinary discovery and selflessness, these objects from Arabia’s hold now revivify history with an exceptional intensity. Most are the simple things touched by the adventurous men and women of 1856, for whom the frontier held the bright promise of a new life somewhere along the Missouri’s watery highway to the edge of America.

Bruce Cole is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. 

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