It was attempted before-several times, and several times failed, but the Hawley family had heard the treasure hunting stories connected with the Steamboat Arabia, and they knew it was down there. They had no salvage or excavating expertise. They were just an ordinary family operating a family-run refrigeration business. But that steamboat in a cornfield called out to them and, finally, around 1990, they answered that call.
The Steamboat Arabia was laden with merchandise and sundries loaded aboard in St. Louis, Missouri. It was on its way out west to outfit the general stores and mercantile shops that catered to the courageous pioneer families that had made the hazardous trek along the various trails leading westward to their very own promised land.
But it was not to be. A piece of tree trunk, called a snag, was silently hiding in the rapid current of the Missouri River, soon to meet up with the sturdy side-wheeler and to seal her fate. Treasure hunting stories abound throughout this region — stories of Jesse James’s gang, for instance, and their illegally obtained booty, left buried all over central and western Missouri. But these stories fade in comparison to that of the Steamboat Arabia.
Through the years the river actually changed course, so when the Hawley family and their partners in this treasure-hunting enterprise finally located the sunken steamboat, it was lying deep beneath a cornfield. There were setbacks aplenty: their excavation kept filling up with water and, typically, the cost of such an endeavor turned out to be far greater than anticipated. In fact, they were on the verge of giving up due to lack of funds when they finally discovered the deck of the steamboat.
Then came treasure after treasure until every member of the team had his own personal treasure hunting stories to share with the growing number of onlookers. They found barrels full of beautiful china, tools, clothing, hats and boots, weapons, well-preserved food items, perfume, and buttons, buttons buttons! It was a virtual floating museum sunken deep in the mud beneath an unimposing Missouri cornfield. Most of the treasures were in pristine condition, protected from rust and oxygenation by that very same mud.
That’s when it occurred to the family that they could not claim their discovery for themselves alone. The treasure hunting stories connected with the Steamboat Arabia belonged to the world. It was everyone’s story-not just theirs. This presented a new challenge. They knew nothing about designing a museum, nor of proper display techniques. They knew even less about the processes necessary to preserve these nearly 150 year old treasures. So they did their homework. They contacted experts from such places as the Smithsonian. They toured department stores nationwide to study merchandise displays.
When they were finished, they opened up The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. The displays are breathtaking; the story gives one goosebumps. It is a step into America’s past: 1858. If you ever doubted man’s ability to travel through time, you’ll become a believer when you step through the doors of The Steamboat Arabia Museum — MidAmerica’s history resurrected from a cornfield.