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Uncovering a Sunken Treasure

A Conversation with David and Greg Hawley

HUMANITIES, November/December 2004 | Volume 25, Number 6

In 1988, the Hawley family unearthed a steamboat that had sunk before the Civil War. NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talked with the brothers recently about their change from treasure hunters into preservationists and museum owners.

Bruce Cole: You found a steamship full of treasure, the Arabia, in a cornfield?

David Hawley: In Kansas. A weird place to find it, a buried, sunken shipwreck, in Kansas.

Cole: How did that happen?

DH: Well, the Arabia was on its way, as many steamships were back in the 1850s, bringing supplies and passengers to the frontier. The Arabia carried 222 tons of freight, and, on this trip, 130 passengers, to sixteen towns west of Kansas City. About six or eight miles past Kansas City, it hit a tree. The tree poked a hole in the boat and it sank. The passengers survived. Cargo and freight did not. It sank in the mud and was buried by the sediment that was deposited on it by the river. Over the years, the river changed its course and we found it a half mile from the present course, buried fortyfive feet under a Kansas farm field.

Cole: How did you know where to look?

DH: We read an old newspaper printed at the time. It sank on September 5, 1856. The newspaper said that it sank a mile below a town called Parkville. Parkville is still there today. I bought an old map and I drew the old map onto a new map to see where the river channel had once been. I put a circle on the map and just walked back and forth up and down the cornrows with a metal detector and found the boilers and engines.

Cole: Have you both been always interested in steamboats and buried treasure? Is this something that stems from your childhood?

Greg Hawley: Dad took us to Colorado every year since 1958. Dad is a bow hunter. At first he would drag us around chasing these poor deer and then he met a gold miner by the name of Mike Hawkins, and Mike and Dad got to be good pals. Mike got so old he couldn't gold mine anymore and sold my dad these old claims. We would go out and chase the deer a little bit, but we would also dig through these old gold mines and old ghost towns.

We were gearing up to go back to Colorado in the summer of 1985 when my brother, David, ran into a guy who mentioned these old boats. We grew up right along the river, hunted and played there as kids, and knew the river had changed course. We started digging through old newspapers and books and found out that not just one or two boats sank on this river, but an estimated four hundred boats went down. We knew then we were on to something. We believe about twothirds of these boats are buried under farmers' fields.

Did we lay awake thinking that we would get rich? Probably not. But when we heard about these boats the hunt was on. We felt that there was great potential, monetary potential. Not so much historical potential, although history did interest us.

Cole: So you started off as treasure hunters?

GH: Absolutely. We're three refrigeration repairmen, a restaurant owner, and a guy that digs sewer line ditches, and that's us.

Cole: That's a great part of the story, though--that you all did it on your own. You found it and you financed it yourselves.

The Arabia was said to carry four hundred barrels of Kentucky's finest bourbon whiskey. Was that the fascination, the liquid treasure? What else were you looking for?

DH: I don't think we really thought we'd find a box of gold.It was more the adventure of just going out and looking for it. Our budget was fifty or sixty thousand. We thought we would find at least that much of value.

Cole: What did people think about this?

DH: Well, I don't remember talking a whole lot about it. Friends kind of knew. And when we'd go out looking for equipment--pumps and screen wire and stuff--it would come up in the conversation. There was certainly an air of skepticism, but most of the guys we talked to thought, wow, that does sound like fun.

GH: A project that was going to cost $60,000 in 1985 ballooned to a $250,000 budget in 1988 when we broke ground, which was a huge amount of money to us. That was supposed to last the entire dig and we spent it all in three-and-a-half weeks.

So there were a lot of people out there that were our friends that didn't tell us we were nuts, and yet behind the scenes I think they were saying, boy, these Hawleys are in really big trouble.

Cole: One of the things I've learned in this museum is that there are all sorts of sunken ships in the Missouri or the Missouri's old course. This was something like your fifth or sixth choice of boats, the Arabia?

DH: Yes. We found boats before the Arabia. There are other great boats, but the Arabia was close to home and the farmer was a nice guy.

There was a newspaper article about a salvage attempt of the Arabia years ago where people built a big tube and dug down and cut a hole in the boat. Then two of them with a lantern walked from one end of the boat to the other. They said they found some lumber and a barrel and a pile of old, musty boots. They said there was nothing down there of value, so they came up through their hole and went away and never came back.

But we dismiss that as probably impractical. The boat was filled with mud. There was no way you could walk through the deck. So we dug it anyway.

Cole: Before you decided on this boat, what kind of research did you do?

DH: Through old newspapers, primarily. One of the greatest frustrations is that the newspaper accounts of steamboat wrecks are very brief. You'll find out more about what happened at the county fair and who won the blueberry pie contest.

Cole: Because it's a common occurrence, for one thing?

DH: Yes. We thought perhaps in the National Archives in Washington there would be more information. And there was, but I found that it's best to do your local research locally. We gathered as much information as we could about the boat, which wasn't reams and reams. We did find the names of all the merchants, the towns that they were in, the numbers of boxes that they lost.

Cole: How did you find that?

DH: That was in a St. Louis newspaper. A clerk from the ship must have had the list upstairs in his office and when it sank he had time to gather it up. He carried it back to St. Louis, and he reported it to the newspaper. He gave the name of the towns, the names of the merchants, and the amount of cargo lost, but not what was in each box.

GH: In the case of the Arabia, the cargo was insured for ten thousand dollars. Not much today, but back then, when people made five cents an hour, that was a lot of money. As you begin to do your research and you're trying to figure out which boat you want to choose, eight, ten, fifteen thousand dollars is about the high end on these vessels.

And the farmer was a good guy. One landowner said he wanted 80 percent of what the things brought at auction. This farmer wanted only 15 percent of the proceeds. And when we decided later that we were going to create a museum with our portion, he was even more generous. He asked for just twenty-five items to give his childrenand grandchildren, and he gave the rest to us. He took no one-of-a-kinds, nothing that would break up a set. We've long felt that we dug a good boat from the best landowner on this river.

Cole: Tell us about the boat. Where was she built, what did she look like?

DH: It was built in Brownsville, Pennsylvania, in 1853, Pringle's Shipyard. They made about twentyfour boats a year. It came down the Monongahela River to the Ohio. It traveled down the Ohio to the Mississippi, and traveled on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis until 1855. Then, under new owners, it came on the Missouri River and traveled here until it sank, on September 5, 1856. It was just three years old when it sank.

Cole: Which you say is not unusual.

GH: Yes. Of the four hundred boats estimated to have sunk--two hundred and eighty-nine documented--70 percent of them are thought to have sunk by tree snags, the other 30 percent fires, high winds blowing them into bridges and boiler explosions, or just taken apart and used to rebuild other boats.

DH: When the Missouri River wanted to move, it didn't matter if a tree was there or not. It would undercut those trees and they would wash into the river. The roots would get stuck in the bottom of the river and the current of the river would swing this tree facing downstream. Then, over the years, it would shave off the small branches and rot the tree off at water level.

Cole: So it was like a spear?

DH: Yes, with the roots tight in the bottom of the river. You couldn't see them. That's what took them down.

Cole: What was she carrying?

DH: St. Louis was sort of the distribution hub of the Midwest then. Freight was brought to St. Louis from all over the world up the Mississippi River and on rail lines. That was one of the fascinating things, I thought, about the boat. Even back in the 1850s international trade was very well developed. We found silk that came from the Orient and dishes from England and tobacco from South America and perfume from France.

Then, from St. Louis, boats would deliver the supplies up the Mississippi and west on the Missouri.

Cole: You find out a lot about what's going on with trade when you find this kind of cargo.

DH: Yes.

GH: Now be mindful, the boat sank before Abraham Lincoln was president. It sank before the Civil War. We reached the boat, we uncovered the left paddle wheel, and lying in the spokes of the wheel is our first artifact. It's a little bitty shoe. We washed it off and it's a rubber shoe with the word "Goodyear" stamped on the sole, with a patent date of 1849.

Cole: There were some pretty fancy goods on this ship. Champagne and brandy, right? And some nice clothes.

DH: Gold-trimmed dishes.

GH: Pots and pans with non-stick cooking surfaces. Our perception of pioneer life changed dramatically during this dig. The emphasis began to switch from the monetary to the historical.

Cole: And you got interested in, then, preserving, and the whole network of historical connections and life?

DH: Yes.

Cole: Tell me a little bit about the man who owned the land.

DH: Norman Sortor was a retired magistrate judge. His grandpa had told him stories about the boat and he thought it would be fun to see it dug.

GH: His grandfather bought the property from the Wyandotte Indians in the 1860s, 1863 or 1864. And for every generation of Sortors, from Elijah to Fred and Fred to Norman, somebody had tried to dig this boat before us. So unlike most farmers you talked to that give you that deer in the headlights look when you tell them they have a steamboat in their field, Norman said, "Oh, yeah. Yeah, I know about that boat."

Most landowners would say, "Well, what's in it for me?" Norman was truly more concerned. He first felt that Dave and I should forget this dream, that we would probably fail and our families weren't really capable financially of pulling it off. We liked him for that; he was genuinely interested in our wellbeing.

DH: He wasn't a well person. His family brought him down to the dig and they drove him up on a big old pile of dirt so he could look out of his car and see this boatand there it was. There was the back of the boat, the big paddle wheels. For three generations he's heard of it and now he sees it.

He wants to go down to this hole, but the steep banks wouldn't allow him to go down there. So we revved up an old bulldozer and we brought it up to his car. We put him and his wife and his soninlaw in the bucket of that dozer. We took them over the hill and into the hole and set them on the deck of the boat. They roamed around until Norman was tired.

Later we found some cognac from the boat and gave it to him. He never opened that bottle of cognac. He passed away as we were finishing the dig. They took the cognac to the funeral and they opened it up and a lot of them had a toast to the farmer and his chance to walk on his deck.

Cole: That is a great story. When was the last time somebody could see this boat before it was completely covered up with silt?

DH: Eighteen sixty-six. There was low water in the winter. It was reported in the newspaper they saw the upper workings of the boat, probably the paddle wheel part. Then in 1897, they drilled down to the deck in a big steel tube, but that was the last time it was visited by people, 1897.

Cole: Tell us about the excavation.

GH: In some ways, we had some benefits, because we researched how other people tried. The first two attempts used coffer dams to try to hold back the mud and water. But there is more water running below the sand than there is running in the river. It doesn't run as quickly, but the volume is much greater. Trying to dig a hole in that is like trying to dig a ditch through quicksand.

So my dad, who is an extraordinarily brilliant guy, came up with the idea of circling the Arabia using irrigation wells. Irrigation wells have pumps clear to bedrock, sixty-five feet down, and you can push water a great distance.

So we basically pushed the water from the earth. Our fuel bill went out of sight, but with twenty wells pumping twenty thousand gallons a minute, twenty-four hours a day, we finally lowered the water table below this boat and began to salvage this vessel.

We dug the Arabia in four-and-a-half months, which gives most archaeologists aneurysms. But what was apparent to us is that when we finally did lower the water table, we introduced oxygen into what had been an anaerobic environment all these years. We, of course, had an archaeologist, but we had to always ride that fence between slowing down for documentation and speeding up for the sake of the collection.

DH: In addition to that, we were in a flood plain. If the rains were to come, it would wash the dig out. It could have been a wet spring. So we had to be out by then.

Cole: You got the water out. You started digging. What was it like when you first saw something?

DH: We found so many things that someone said, "Every day was like Christmas." And it was.

My favorite things were the pie fillings that we found. I love photography. I took pictures of those and got them back from the lab and realized this colored photograph of this blueberry is the only colored photograph like that in the world--cameras back then were all black and white.

The boat almost became this portal into the past where you could go back to Abraham Lincoln's time and gather up an armful of stuff and bring it back into today's world and see it and smell it and taste it.

Cole: Greg, what was your favorite thing?

GH: When you found somebody's personal luggage, for me and I think for others, that was our great discovery. When you lifted the lid on a personal box, without saying anything, it almost turned into a reverent experience. You were invading someone's life. You didn't feel like you should be there and yet it was okay.

When you lifted the lid, you could tell if it was a male ora female traveler. You could tell if they were wealthy or poor. You could tell if they had children, if there were toys. You could tell by the items if they were tall or short, from the size of their pants or the size of their shoes. Whether they were male or female or rich or poor, you saw what they held most precious, what they chose above else in their life to move west.

In one of the first boxes we found, we pried open the lid and there was a little black hat. It was all tattered around the edges. We removed that and there was a pair of pants that were kind of brown-checkered, turned inside out, with a patch on both knees. They would have certainly not come up to my waist. Next to that was a pair of boots that were severely worn out on the edges, which indicated he either had suffered from rickets as a child or was severely bowlegged from riding. There were two brown jugs under that, one empty, one still two-thirds full of liquor, and below that a coin purse with two dimes and a half dime.

From that, we figured he was short, he was poor, he was extremely bowlegged and he hit the bottle from time to time. But what we saw, nonetheless, was that he chose above all else to go west. He didn't have much. He had to have a tremendous amount of hope that at the end of this journey life would somehow be better.

Cole: So those are the kinds of moments that turned your efforts from being treasure hunters to being preservationists and wanting to keep this together?

DH: Exactly. When you realized the real wealth of this collection was not in selling it to somebody--it's keeping it together--that sets a whole new course. We had to begin to learn about preservation. And we needed a big building.

All that had to be figured out rather quickly when preservation became an issue. We had read in books that when they'd find prehistoric animals buried in ice, they were still in pretty good shape. So we decided let's freeze things.

Then we decided, we'll try and trick these artifacts into thinking they are still in the ground. We'll lease an underground storage area, we'll buy galvanized stock tanks, fill them with water and we'll put some of the artifacts in water. We would work all day and then from eight o'clock at night when we got back to town until midnight is when we would clean these things.

GH: Stabilize them.

DH: Some went to the freezers and some went to the coolers and some things were just stored, like iron and bricks, and dried in temperature-controlled rooms. That was the last thing we would do each day.

GH: As we started tracking down conservators, their questions were, well, what in the world are you doing with this stuff? You just can't bring things out of the ground, two hundred tons of artifacts, and then decide you're going to be conservators.

Being in the refrigeration business, controlling humidity and temperature is what we've always done. Then our partner, Jerry Mackey, who owned the hamburger restaurant, gave us a temporary solution. He had huge walk-in freezers and coolers. So we were pushing tenderloins to one side and we were putting kegs of butter and cheese and lard and soap on the other side, and the health department about had a fit. But they were so enthralled they let us do this.

Once we had the cargo stable, we could begin to be more methodical in our approach to tracking down the right conservators. One of the things that was surprising to us--here we lived in this wonderful country with all this great technology, and yet as a nation we don't dedicate a lot of dollars to historical preservation, not like the Europeans and the Canadians do. Our search went beyond the borders of this country and into the European countries.

Mark Jones, who was one of the chief conservators with Britain's Mary Rose Trust, said, "Well, how come you're calling clear over here and you're not talking with the Canadian Conservation Institute?" I didn't even know there was such a thing.

We called them up. A great, great institution. They provided workshops and were willing to take guys like us under their wing. They introduced us to freeze drying and the different archival lacquers, waxes and polymers that one needs, and we began to experiment on scraps of wood, leather, textiles. As we began to understand and have success with these small pieces of items, we began to move in to the main collection.

Cole: You have this huge collection. You could have auctioned it off at that point.

DH: Yes. We just couldn't do it. The collection would have been broken up and the great treasure that we discovered--the story--would have been lost.

GH: And we had such a marvelous experience, we just knew everybody else would, too. Everybody that came through here would be saying the same thing, "Oh, look. Grandpa had one of those. Remember that?" And we were right.

Eighty percent of our visitors are here because relatives bring them in or tell them to come. So our effort is to turn people into ambassadors of the Arabia. And that is enough.

Cole: You get a sense of the quality of life that people led in a way that is really hard to get in any other place. How many people come each year?

DH: It depends a little bit on the world economy and terrorism and things like that, but we'll see around 135,000 a year.

GH: Twenty-five thousand of that are school kids that come on organized field trips. We assembled an educational advisory board three or four years ago, and we developed a curriculum to match the state educational standards. We do a lot with school kids.

Cole: How did you pick this site for the museum?

DH: We needed a big building and we needed it cheap. We're not subsidized. We had no money. We spent everything we had at the dig. Our budget there was fifty or sixty thousand and we ended up spending close to a million, and that was mostly borrowed. We've been paying loans backever since.

GH: We borrowed another $750,000 to do the museum. We had three museum design firms that showed up unsolicited. The cheapest bid we received was $5.5 million and we did it for $750,000. We worked full-time jobs and at night we would come down here and we would run wire and do plumbing and build the displays and we learned to bend Plexiglas. So it's a true family-operated business.

Now we have twenty employees, because we just need that kind of support, but everything you see here we have touched and cleaned and built and couldn't do it any other way.

Cole: Now your dad is working at the museum. And your mom runs the gift shop, right?

DH: We're all here, yes. We talk to everybody who comes. Dad or Greg or I will say hello and answer questions.

Cole: Part of your museum tour is to the conservation lab on site.

GH: It's important for people to understand what is involved--not just digging, not just what's on display, but the process and the care necessary. Your appreciation for the effort is greatly influenced when you look at those nine hundred and fifty-five boots and shoes, and you learn that they are all hand-stitched, they are soaked in chemicals, they are blocked up and freeze-dried and documented. We only get eighty done a year.

While we began as treasure hunters, we want to make sure that we don't perpetuate people digging artifacts just to sell them. When they see these artifacts and the work commitment that will follow any excavation, they realize the excavation is the easy part. That was something we didn't understand at the time. This is a really important part--not just to educate but to protect these other boats.

Cole: This is an amazing story.

GH: As amazing as it is, it's the tip of the iceberg. Dave might have found this new boat, the Princess. We've got some core samples off it. We're pretty excited about it.

Cole: Where is that?

DH: Twenty miles east of here.

Cole: What cornfield is that one in?

GH: Soybeans, actually.

DH: After the Civil War, there was a gold rush to Montana. The Princess, among others, was going there--three thousand river miles from St. Louis. It sank east of here, maybe about twenty miles or so. A tree snag took it out. There were no salvage attempts on it that I've ever found. It's been left alone.

We went back about three weeks ago, and we test drilled. It is exactly where it should be, according to the old newspaper articles.

We've got a drilling outfit that's ready to start as soon as the soybeans are picked. We didn't have this with the Arabia, but they've got cameras with lights on them that we can go down and look inside walls when we drill.

Cole: What was on that ship?

DH: It will be a lot of the same things we have here, but also gear for the mining folks--picks and shovels.

GH: Plus, we have whale oil lamps aboard the Arabia; this would have kerosene. Our shoes are all wooden pegged; these shoes would be hobnail and stitching.

We would like to dig a boat from the 1860s, the Princess. We have the Arabia from the 1850s. And we want to go after a forties boat. We want to get the ball rolling on a museumthat has a boat from the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties, a boat with trade annuities, a boat with military freight.

As entrepreneurs with our experience and background, we have the ability to dig boats and set up museums that will be selfsustaining, that won't be a burden to the taxpayer. The government will not be digging these boats. They just don't have the efficiency to do it. There is truly a moratorium on this kind of work as it pertains to a state or federal agency. It's going to be up to guys like us.

DH: We want school kids to be the diggers. We want to bring them into the dig site and let them experience the things that we did. There is more to learn than just archaeology. There's math. There's science. You can pull all of the disciplines that kids learn in elementary and high school and beyond. We see a museum created by the community for the community.

GH: By letting these kids get involved, you understand truly the sacrifices of your ancestors. By being involved in history, you're more prone to feel a sense of duty to the country. You're more prone to be better at voting and being proactive in the community. The apathy that America has right now is so destructive. We think we can make a huge difference.

Cole: You both are inspirational. Thank you.

GH: We've enjoyed it.