Steamboat Arabia excavators ponder another roll of the dice

The buried steamship Malta believed to be found

The steamship Malta sank on the Missouri River before the Civil War and David Hawley thinks he has discovered the sunken wreckage of the vessel, buried 50 feet below farm land north of Malta Bend, Missouri. Hawley gave students at Belinder Element
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The steamship Malta sank on the Missouri River before the Civil War and David Hawley thinks he has discovered the sunken wreckage of the vessel, buried 50 feet below farm land north of Malta Bend, Missouri. Hawley gave students at Belinder Element


Beads or buffalo hides?

That’s how David Hawley of Kansas City’s Arabia Steamboat Museum sums up the two possible answers to the question he has been investigating for three years.

In that time Hawley has stalked farm fields 80 miles east of Kansas City, searching for and — he believes — finally finding the remains of the Malta, a steamship that sank in the Missouri River in 1841.

In the late 1980s, Hawley, with other family members and partners, dug up a different steamboat, the Arabia, which sank in 1856 near Parkville.

So will he dig this one up, too?

Hawley who is evangelical about the appeal of recovering sunken 19th century steamboats, knows he has to keep his head.

“It’s so easy to be swept away with this, like a leaf in a stream,” he said Friday.

With the Arabia, the Hawley family and their partners discovered and recovered about 200 tons of cargo in nearly perfect condition.

Many of the tools, boots and preserved pickles they found — a vivid window into daily antebellum American life — have been on display at the River Market museum since 1991. The attraction has won the Hawley family a national reputation and a steady stream of 80,000 annual visitors to the attraction at 400 Grand Blvd.

A second recovered boat would add the artifacts of an entirely different decade, the 1840s, to the steamboat museum.

“This is huge,” said Hawley.

So is the risk.

When his family dug up the Arabia in the late 1980s from a muddy Wyandotte County farm field, it represented a $750,000 roll of the dice.

Performing the same dig today, Hawley said, would cost between $2 million and $3 million. He and his partners would be making an educated — and expensive — guess.

The Malta was co-owned by the Chouteaus, the early 19th century fur-trading family. The Chouteaus used such boats to send trade goods up the Missouri River, supplying their traders at scattered outposts with the manufactured goods they offered to American Indians for furs.

If the Malta was headed upriver when it sank, it would have included such goods, similar to the Arabia cargo.

“Beads,” Hawley said.

Or, if the boat, was headed back down the Missouri River, it could be filled only with animal skins headed back to the Chouteaus in St. Louis.

“Buffalo hides,” said Hawley. “I’m not sure people will want to go to a buffalo hide museum.”

So, do they dig?

Hawley thinks he and his partners will decide in about one month.

He estimates he has about two weeks worth of drilling to determine the specific outline of the boat, which lies perhaps 50 feet below the surface. He’s been conducting such outlining since January, and on Friday he helped string yellow rope around the existing perimeter.

“That is the first time I’ve seen the boat like this,” Hawley said Friday on the site. “It kind of makes me want to dig.”

Once that work is complete, Hawley will bring in a bigger drill rig to take core samples of whatever lies beneath.

He conducted one such drilling in January, and the result excited Hawley. On Friday, before about 50 Malta Bend students, teachers and parents, Hawley took the lid off a plastic container full of water and wood preservative.

He pulled out a piece of pine. That had come up in one core sample drill. Steamboat builders of the era used pine for the decks.

Then Hawley brought out a piece of oak. That had come up, too. That durable wood often was used in the construction of steamboat hulls.

The January drilling also produced a piece of blue and red wool. Coarsely woven and durable, the scrap could have come from the kind of manufactured cloth that 19th century American Indians of the upper Missouri River might have found useful.

If Hawley finds more of that kind of material, it could convince him and his partners to commit to a dig.

That would please and excite various partners.

One of them is Michael Wunsch, executive producer and partner with Outpost Worldwide, a Kansas City television production company. His outfit has an agreement with the Hawley family and connections with a Los Angeles production company.

Wunsch and colleagues already have produced a “sizzle reel” with which to shop a possible documentary series that would capture the drama of the Malta dig.

“The Hawleys are the only family in America we know that is digging up steamboats out of cornfields,” Wunsch said. “They are digging up American history in Kansas City’s backyard.”

A show like that, distributed nationally by a major network, could bring a new surge of visitors to the museum’s door. Any large television company also would pay a significant fee for the rights to film the dig.

That money, Hawley said, could go to the Arabia Steamboat Foundation, a nonprofit entity established by the Hawleys two years ago, and help finance the project.

It could also address the museum’s long-term future viability. Hawley is unsure how long the museum will remain in the River Market.

“Our days at our current location are numbered,” Hawley said.

The principal issue is space, or the lack of it. Much of the Arabia collection remains in storage. That problem would only grow more acute if Hawley started digging up a second boat.

For about 10 years, the Hawley family has maintained a continuing dialogue with city, county and economic development officials across the Kansas City area, discussing possible scenarios for a new long-term home for the collection.

On Friday, Parkville Mayor Nan Johnston was among those visiting the Malta dig site.

“He’s going to need a place to show all of the stuff,” said Johnston. While adding that Hawley and his partners face more pressing decisions in the days ahead, she likes the idea of the Arabia collection someday coming to Parkville.

“It’s something I would like very much to see,” she said.

Still others want to see the Hawleys dig. That includes the Malta Bend students brought to the site Friday. Although liability issues would prevent such events from becoming routine, Hawley wanted the students to see the possible dig site.

John Angelhow, the Malta Bend school district’s superintendent, said, “This is a tremendous opportunity for the students. Now for the rest of their lives they can say they were there before they dug the boat up.”

Jerry Mackey, also present Friday, said he wouldn’t mind another dig. Now 82, Mackey was one of the partners who joined the Hawley family on the Arabia dig in the late 1980s.

“It changed all of our lives,” Mackey said.

Mackey, the longtime owner of the HiBoy hamburger restaurant group, is retired now but continues giving tours at the Arabia museum.

“Back when I was making hamburgers I would get complaints sometimes,” Mackey said. “I’ve never gotten a complaint down at the museum.”

Jim Backes, a Malta Bend farmer and landowner, also would be pleased to see the project go forward.

Whatever Hawley has found lies beneath some of the 250 acres his father acquired in 1940, about 1,000 feet south of the Missouri River in Carroll County.

Like all Malta Bend residents, he has heard the stories about the boat’s sinking. Some accounts held that, at one point, twin smokestacks could still be seen poking above the mud or river water, depending how swollen the Missouri River was at that time.

“I’d just like to see what they would find,” Backes said.

Hawley has investigated 11 steamboat wrecks. He has dug up two.

One was the Arabia.

The other was the Missouri Packet. In 1987, the Hawleys retrieved a 5,000-pound 19th century steam engine from a field near Arrow Rock, Mo. The engine once had powered the Packet, a 120-foot, 60-ton steamboat that sank in the Missouri River in 1820, one year before Missouri became a state.

In 2013, the Hawleys installed the engine in the Arabia museum. Today, Hawley believes it is the oldest maritime steam engine known to exist in the United States.

But digging up a second boat is a big decision — one he will make around, but not on, April Fool’s Day.

“Call me on the second of April,” Hawley said.

Brian Burnes: 816-234-4120, @BPBthree

Visit theArabia Steamboat Museum website at 1856.com