Harland “Bob” Hawley — known for his work excavating a massive sunken steamboat displayed at the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City — died Monday at the age of 89, according to an obituary posted on the museum’s Facebook page.
Hawley also was an Independence City Council member during that city’s politically turbulent 1980s. It was after he lost a bid for reelection in 1988 that Hawley, along with his sons, David and Greg, and other partners that included Independence businessman Jerry Mackey and David Luttrell, excavated the Arabia.
The steamboat, carrying about 200 pounds of cargo, hit a tree snag and sank in the Missouri River in what is now Wyandotte County in 1856. In 1988, the sunken boat and its lost cargo was recovered and in 1991, the Arabia Steamboat Museum opened to the public.
Hawley was a daily presence at the museum, enthusiastically relating tales of the steamboat, the wreck and the dig to fascinated visitors.
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But Hawley was forced to cut back starting about a year and a half ago, as the effects of ALS, or Lou Gherig’s disease, gradually took hold.
“It takes you an inch at a time,” David Hawley said Wednesday, explaining how his dad first lost his speech and then his mobility. In recent weeks he was bedridden.
A visitation for Hawley at the steamboat museum in the City Market on Thursday will be 10 years to the day since Greg Hawley was killed by a reckless driver on Interstate 70 in Independence.
“I think he picked it,” David Hawley said of the timing of his father’s death. “That’s just too coincidental.”
The Arabia museum’s collection of artifacts “stands as a lasting legacy of the determination and self-confidence for which Bob Hawley was so well known,” his obituary said.
“His gentle and kind demeanor was magnetic. He was a perceptive and thoughtful man whose wise council was highly regarded. Clever in the way of mechanical ingenuity, he was able to build or repair most any piece of equipment and made his living doing just that,” the obituary continued.
Hawley built his own refrigeration business in Independence before diving into the world of digging up boats.
He was also active in civic affairs, having championed the voter-approved move to a city charter, “which changed the form of government in Independence,” former mayor Barbara Potts said Wednesday.
But that did not spare the city from years of turmoil between rival political factions.
Hawley was elected to the city council in 1984 with the backing of the Good Government League and Citizens for Effective Leadership, groups that also backed Potts. Another force, the United Eastern Democrats, were aligned with former Independence councilman John Carnes and his allies. Hawley was defeated in 1988 by Victor Callahan.
“He was a good man,” Potts said of Hawley. “He was so down to earth and related to everyday kind of people. He had run a business so he had some pretty good idea about finances. He was very practical.”
Before his illness incapacitated him, Bob Hawley was heavily involved in the Arabia partnership’s quest to excavate another sunken steamboat. They found one, the Malta, that sank in the Missouri River in 1841 while headed upstream full of cargo. The boat was located beneath a soybean field near present-day Malta Bend.
“Dad came out early on and helped drill and we’d play around on the farm,” David Hawley said. “And when we got a little more serious into the drilling it was winter and he couldn’t come out then.”
But Bob Hawley still would watch the work on FaceTime and communicate by phone.
David Hawley said the excavation of the Malta will wait until the Arabia finds a new home. The current building is not large enough to hold artifacts from a second steamboat.
Visitation for Hawley is 5-8 p.m. Thursday at the museum, 400 Grand Blvd. There will be no admission fee.
Funeral service is 10 a.m. Friday at Speaks Funeral Home, 18020 E. 39th St. S. in Independence.