Check out the Arabia Steamboat Museum’s website here:
On this episode we talk with David Hawley of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City. He tells his story about how he got interested in searching for steamboats in the cornfields of Missouri and Kansas.
I’m Dr. Page, the best guy to see on the worst day of your life. I have with me David Hawley. David is almost like an Indiana Jones. David is a treasure hunter in a sense, and he’s going to tell us about an unusual find in a corn field in Kansas. How are you today? David: I’m doing well, sir. Thank you very much for inviting me on your show. Dr. Chuck: I’m glad you’re here on life’s about living. Typically, when we think of finding a boat, we think about the sea. David tell me about how you found a boat in the middle of a Kansas cornfield. David: Well, there was a back in the day, long ago, in the late summer of 1856, a steamboat called the Arabia. Loaded with 2. 22 tons of freight heading for the frontier with about 150 passengers. It left late August. Where was the frontier at that point 1856? Well in our world today, the frontier would have been just pretty near anywhere, but in their day they considered anything west of really Kansas city. Missouri was a state became a state in 1821, Kansas and Nebraska were territories. All of that up through there was pretty much wilderness. A lot of the first run of the trip by steamboat. They’d, get to Kansas City, maybe Omaha, and then from there points west. Steamboats not only transported passengers, but they carried lots of freight. If you were to compare them in our world today, they would be kind of like a fedex truck. Okay, you would go hear everything on them. You would you traveled to St Louis you’d. Go to the warehouses. You’d, pick out the things you wanted for your stores, you’d, put them on a wagon, take them down to the boat dock, put them on a steamboat, and a couple weeks later, they’d, show up in Omaha Sioux city, kansas city, wherever. Well, there were railroads, but there weren’t railroads to Kansas city. In 1856 there were lots of steamboats on the rivers. They called that the golden age of steamboating. The arabia left and took about five days or so to reach Kansas city. On september, the 5th 1856, it was dinner time. The sun was sinking. They drove that boat right into this tree that had washed into the river,, buried under the water. It began to fill with water and it sank, sank quickly.
So was this a passenger boat? It was it had. So this carried goods it carried people, people were just on vacation just taking a cruise. Well, maybe we don’t know a lot about the passengers. We found some of their belongings and people certainly did steam travel by boat for fun, but most people were people moving west.
They were going somewhere going west, they were, they were picking up and they’re going to the frontier. You know to start a new life out here and they they have everything they own. You know on this boat right in their their most prized possessions because they don’t travel like you and me.
They don’t move like you and i when, when we move today, we up a loading van full of stuff and away you go, but back then they carried their most precious. Things put them on the boat and i think it’s interesting so so anyway, so the boat sank and nobody died on the boat.
Apparently, is that correct? The missouri river wall is a very fast and dangerous river. It’s, not a deep river right. It’s 12 to 15 feet. Deep and steamboats are much taller than that right. The tree and sank, the upper part of the boat remained out of water for a while.
So everybody just ran from the top and with a row boat a little at a time. One load at a time took them to shore. They all got there carried what they could now for the people who had their luggage in the lower part down in the freight area downstairs right.
They couldn’t, get to that. Couldn’t, get them with water and mud lickety-split. No saving it so so david. How did you get into all this? I mean you, how did you become an excavator and and find this and hear about the boat? I mean, how was it discovered? Well, what seems like at least two lifetimes ago, [ Laughter ].
My dad my mom and myself and my brother were the heating and air conditioning business. We designed the air conditioner systems for homes and shops and repaired them, and i was out at a guy’s house working on his air conditioner.
This was about 1985. wow and and got it fixed, went inside to talk to the guy and he had the most unusual room on the far side of the room that i went into. You could see maps and pictures of old steamboats and on the left-hand side he had pictures of flying saucers where they landed and on the other side of the wall there was a full-size cut out of a bigfoot.
You know susquatch or whatever those things were real too, and he liked to talk about all that stuff and he did, but he got finally around to talking about steamboats, and that was really what interested me.
I didn’t care much about the other. Two, the sasquatch yeah i didn’t care about that, but i checked out steamboat books and i called my dad and my brother and and said: let’s join join me for lunch. I got to tell you about this guy that i met, so we went to a little hamburger.
Restaurant sat down there and the owner of the place. We knew him came out and sat down too. By the time lunch was over, they were saying dave. You go find a steamboat. We’ll help. You dig it that’s. What how this so they just just all you just that that started your passion, your pursuit of this, and i guess the rest is history david, that’s, how they say it didn’t it well.
How did you find this particular of the arabia? I mean what well what what were the events there in the search of steamboats you go to old newspapers, and you read all newspapers and um. I was looking for a boat.
It sank not here very far from kansas city, and so i got into a newspaper of 1856 and came across an article that talked about the steamboat arabia. A-R-A-B-I spelled just like the countries, so so you had to go back into libraries and find these old papers and look on microfinish and all that stuff back in the day back in the year, reels of microfilm look through all that stuff page after page after page After page yeah and here’s, this little video article, it wasn’t very long.
It said large and valuable cargo hits a tree, it sinks, no loss of life and cargo totally lost wow about all. It said it said also that it sank a mile from a town called parkville parkville. I know where that’s at it’s, not very far from kansas city, so i got some old maps of the river from back.
In those days and i drew the old map onto a new map – oh my river used to be because, oddly enough, strangely enough, the rivers change course now that’s, something that i don’t realize the missouri river was a very Fast river, the sides of the river are fairly soft, a lot of sand right and the river changes quick and easily.
So the river would move, and in this case it moved a half a mile from the time the boat sank until present day. Wow got the map came down a mile from parkville knew where the old river used to be, and then i took a metal detector out with the farmer’s permission and i walked up and down cornrows back and forth, and back and forth.
Looking for iron looking for something that would would look kind of like a steamboat under how long did it take you to find it just one day you’re kidding, so you know we pretty much pinpointed it pretty quickly.
That was real close now. If i to start on the far side of the field and walk the other way might have taken two or three days right, because i just happened to start here and went that direction to the left.
You know whatever. Then it was within the first day. So what did the farmer with the cornfield say? Did you think you were crazy? Like hey, i want to dig up a field and find a steamboat. Oh now, some farmers i’ve, talked because i’ve.
Looked i’ve, looked for a lot of boats and some farmers do think you’re a little nuts, but right. This fella was named norman. Okay, norman’s. Great great grandpa had owned the farm back in those days and they knew this boat came up the river and sank and, as the river shifted his course part of the folklore of his family was the boat was buried somewhere under that under that farm.
That had one spin river that now belonged to them wow, so he was. He was curious about it himself. He’d, been curious. Long before i ever showed up. He’d, curious about it as a kid he’d heard about it.
The rumor was the boat was carrying 400 barrels of finest kentucky, bourbon money could buy and he thought that would still be there. So he said dave. If you can find it, i’ll, let you dig it so that’s.
When i went looking for it and i found it wow, it was in a cornfield. So how long did it take you to excavate it from the time we started until the last artifact came out was four months wow. We did it all in the winter now it here in kansas city today, as i’m speaking to you, it’s about eight degrees above zero.
It’s, cold right very cold. Now, why’d? You get in the winter time. Well, because the artifacts coming out of the ground need to stay cold. The heat of the summer would damage a lot of things and the ground that we’re thinking is not stable and we’re.
Going to go down 45 feet to get to this boat, and so the walls have got to be frozen in place, so they don’t cave in on [, Music, ] and don’t flood. The river don’t flood in the wintertime, and there’s, no bugs in the wintertime and the farmer.
Don’t need his crops, his farm in the wintertime. So that is so interesting. You know it’s. You know it’s such an interesting way of life. There’s, so many things that we have have just forgotten in our modern culture, man.
You know i just want to encourage our visitors to go check out uh. This arabia exhibit there in downtown kansas city in downtown kansas city, missouri and uh man. It sounds like it’s, a great attraction, and i think people will really be interested.
You can also find david’s. Uh more information about the arabia exhibit at 1856.com. I have with me david hawley, here on life’s about living. Once again, just remind you that you can subscribe to this by texting lal to 66866, and that will get you into our all of our videos and podcasts and everything on life’s about living david.
It’s, been a real honor to have you. On this session. We’re, going to have some more sessions with david. We’re, going to ask him some more questions about this very interesting exhibit and the the old riverboat arabia, thanks for being on the show david.
Thank you very much for the invite you