KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Florence “Flo” Hawley didn’t know what to think.
About 28 years ago, Bob Hawley, her husband, decided to dump the couple’s life savings into a search for the Steamboat Arabia. The vessel, a twin side-wheel steamer carrying 200 tons of cargo bound for the frontier, hit a snag and sank in the Missouri River in 1856.
Any rational wife would have said “No.”
“When we got married, I promised that I’d love him forever,” the 83-year-old said recently. “I trusted him, but I was sure worried. I was a really poor girl growing up. He never told me how much money he really spent or how much he borrowed at the bank.”
Flo said she had faith in her husband, and she hoped he knew what he was doing and that he wouldn’t take the couple into too much debt.
Bob, however, was on a mission. He wasn’t afraid of risk — or debt — in searching for his steamboat treasure.
“Oh my, we were in debt 10 years,” Bob, also 83, said with a laugh. “We spent all of our money by about three weeks into the project. We almost quit. If it hadn’t been for the barrel of dishes we found, we would probably be doing something different today.”
One night, Bob called Flo at home and told her to hustle to the dig site. He had something he wanted her to see.
“I said, ‘I can’t, I’m cooking supper,’” Flo recounted.
“Well, shut that stove off and get down here,” Bob replied.
“When I got down there, they had uncovered a barrel that had Wedgwood and Freibergen dishes inside,” Flo said. “We washed the mud off them dishes in the cold Missouri water.”
The barrel of rare dishes interested investors and the couple raised enough money to continue their effort. The dishes are now displayed at the museum.
“That kept us going,” Flo said. “We were blessed, and it all worked out.”
History on display
The Steamboat Arabia Museum, located at 400 Grand Blvd. in Kansas City’s River Market District, is the culmination of the Hawley family’s almost 30-year interest in Missouri River culture. Tens of thousands of artifacts collected at the Arabia dig site offer a look at life frozen in 1856. The museum includes fine china and rare housewares, guns and ammunition, construction materials, and supplies needed to settle the American West, as well as massive pieces of the ship that have been recovered and restored for display.
One of the boat’s two 28-foot paddlewheels quietly turns in the museum lobby. Restored portions of the Arabia’s boilers give guests a look at mid-19th century propulsion. Climate-controlled display cases protect and preserve delicate fabrics, leathers and foodstuffs recovered from the steamer’s muddy grave.
“It tells a remarkable story from 1856 and the things that came off the boat,” Flo Hawley said. “It touches just about every aspect of life from that time. Children going through (the museum) have no idea what life was like in 1856, or how hard our grandmas and grandpas had to work, how talented they were to make all of these things they needed to survive the frontier. This is our country, and every child should know more about it. It’s our Missouri heritage.”
The museum also is home to a working laboratory where Arabia’s artifacts are restored and preserved. Arabia’s only casualty — a mule that remained tied to its hitch as the boat sank — greets visitors as they descend from the lobby into the museum. A film detailing Arabia’s journey from its construction in 1853 to its current home in Kansas City educates guests about Missouri River life and the dangers of river navigation.
‘An amazing boat’
Bob Hawley didn’t just wake up one morning and suddenly decide to look for a Missouri River steamboat. He owned a profitable refrigeration business, and his son David worked for the family business. They stumbled onto the riverboat by accident.
“We sent David on a service call, and he came back with a story about all of these boats that had sunk on the Missouri River,” Bob said. “This guy had located about 400 boats that had sunk, and told David about a third of those were no longer in the river but under farm ground.”
That excited Bob.
“If a guy knew where to dig with a big shovel, a guy could go out there and find an old steamboat,” he thought.
It took a couple of years for the Hawleys to learn about Missouri’s riverboats. They researched and read old newspapers.
“It was so fun to read about,” Bob said. “We found that it wasn’t very hard. If you had the right equipment, you could find the iron from the boats (with a magnetometer). We found six of the 10 boats that we had researched, and we were going to dig each one up and get rich and famous overnight.”
But that’s not how it worked out.
Locating and excavating the 171-foot-long Arabia and its more than 200 tons of cargo took months.
During the 132 years since the steamer sank in the river near Parkville, the Missouri River had shifted course many times.
Arabia was buried under 45 feet of mud and silt when it was located. The Hawleys and their two sons, Greg and David, made a deal with the farmer on whose land the boat was found.
“She was an amazing boat,” Bob said. “It had so much cargo on it when it sank. We decided we would rather have a museum than a big sale, and (the landowner) decided a museum was a better place for the artifacts. He traded his 15 percent for 15 artifacts of his choosing. That was the deal.”
The Hawleys kept the rest and opened the Arabia Steamboat Museum in 1991.
Want to go?
The Steamboat Arabia Museum is at 400 Grand Blvd. in Kansas City. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and from noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $14.50 for adults, $13.50 for seniors 60 and older, $5.50 for children 4 to 12, and free for children 3 and younger. Reservations: 816-471-1856. Details: www.1856.com.
About the boat
The Steamboat Arabia was a side-wheel steamer built in 1853 in Brownsville, Pa. It measured 171 feet long, 29 feet wide and was capable of carrying 222 tons of cargo. Against the Missouri River’s swift current, the 28-foot-tall paddlewheels pushed the Arabia upstream at more than 5 mph. The Arabia was considered a dependable vessel, and it gained a reputation for speed, safety and comfort.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. —
Florence “Flo” Hawley didn’t know what to think.
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