The Arabia steamboat is en route to Kansas City and beyond, its decks filled with passengers hoping to follow the Missouri River west to good fortune. Steam billows from the smokestacks as the vessel makes the long, slow journey from St. Louis.
Suddenly, disaster strikes. The Arabia crashes into the massive trunk of a fallen tree, which tears a hole in the hull. Within moments the muddy waters start to overwhelm the steamer and drag it down into the depths.
This was in 1856 when the Arabia was one of many steamboats ferrying passengers along the Missouri River. Built in Pennsylvania in 1853, its dual 28-foot paddlewheels permitted a top speed of just 5 mph.
The design and build of the Arabia made it an agile ship equipped for navigating the river’s hazardous sunken debris and sandbars. Sadly, this wasn’t enough to save it from its watery end, and the ship lay on the seabed for more than 130 years before it was finally excavated by the Hawley family in 1987.
It should be said, however, that for at least 14 journeys the steamer puffed along the river without incident. Below the surface, though, there were snags – fallen trees that went on to sink approximately 300 steamships.
As the Arabia sailed from St. Louis to Kansas City it inevitably became one of the 300. The trunk of a walnut tree pierced the steamer’s hull, which suffered a tear that caused the vessel to be overwhelmed by water.
It didn’t take long for the Arabia to succumb to its fate. As the steamer sank to the bottom of the river it took with it the valuable supplies and a poor mule who remained tied to a sinking deck.
Miraculously, though, all 130 passengers escaped with their lives. The upper cabins of the steamer stayed above water long enough – but only just – for a rowboat to ferry people ashore. By the next morning only the tops of the ship’s funnels could be seen.
After a few days the mighty Missouri River had swept away all traces of the Arabia and time, slowly but surely, marched on. Even the river slowly abandoned the grave of the steamboat by cutting a new course to the east.
For the next 131 years the Arabia lay buried and forgotten. Rumors of a valuable cargo onboard the steamer drew the odd treasure hunter, but no one was able to locate the vessel’s final resting place.
All that changed when the Hawley family came on to the scene. Bob and his two sons David and Greg had a passion for hunting down the wrecks of Missouri River steamboats, and for selling whatever they could salvage from their historic cargos.
In the summer of 1987 David Hawley located the wreck of the Arabia using a magnetometer. The steamer’s remains were located beneath 45 feet of mud half a mile from the river’s current course.
“I got real excited,” Hawley told Smithsonian.com. “It was like a bull’s-eye. I knew I was there. I said to myself ‘I’ve got it! This is one big fish, and we’re going to reel you in.’”
With permission from the landowner farmer, the Hawley family got to work excavating. They drafted in the help of friends and shipped in second-hand equipment by barge.
The going was tough. Some 20 wells had to be dug to drain groundwater from the site. Floods and mudslides were common in wet weather, while dry spells saw workers overwhelmed by sand.
For 17 days the Hawleys and their friends labored from dawn until dusk. Finally, they discovered the first sign of the steamer that had been buried underground for well over a century – the old timbers of a paddlewheel.
Next, they discovered their first real artifact. It was an old rubber shoe that surfaced from the wreck, and this was just the beginning of an incredible haul of treasures that would transform the Hawleys’ lives.
Indeed, crates, barrels and boxes were dragged up from the depths. Crammed inside were the necessities that pioneers had packed for their adventures all those years ago.
The personal belongings they uncovered were many and varied – everything from castor oil and trousers to tools and fruit preserves. Because they’d been in airtight conditions they were remarkably well preserved, and some of it was even edible.
The Hawleys were so inspired by their haul that they decided to establish the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, Missouri, which remains open today. In fact, experts have used the artifacts displayed there to form a more detailed picture of what life was like in frontier society in the mid-19th century.