In the 19th century, a legend circulated among farms near Kansas City, about an old steamboat buried somewhere under a cornfield. According to stories, the wreck was filled with gold and hundreds of barrels of Kentucky wine. With the help of old maps and a magnetometer, Bob Hawley and his sons set out to get to the bottom of local legend. However, what they found in 1988 was beyond their imagination.
The legend dates back to 1853, when the steamboat, Great White Arabia was built. The 171 feet long side wheeler steamboat traveled the Ohio and Mississippi rivers before it was operated on the Missouri. It used to transport passengers and soldiers, along with up to 222 tons of cargo, such as tools and goods for general stores, as well as mail. Also, old newspapers reported that the Arabia was thought to have been used for smuggling guns and cannons in boxes labeled “Carpenters Tools”.
Long river voyages were actually quite dangerous for 19th century steamboats. One of the biggest risks was hitting a sharp tree snug, which were scattered all over the rivers. They have sunk hundreds of vessels in the golden age of steamboats.
On September 5, 1856, just outside of Kansas City, one such tree snug ripped open the hull of the Arabia, and rapidly filled it with water. She sank in a matter of minutes, but her 150 passengers and crew made it safely to shore. The only casualty was a mule that was tied to a sawmill on the ground deck. All of her 200 tons of cargo, however, were lost to the bottom of the Missouri River.
But the question arises; how did she end up under a cornfield 135 years later?
During the second half of the 1900s, the Missouri River was undergoing forceful alteration by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They wanted to make shipping faster on the river, and therefore, the banks were brought closer to each other at some points. This narrowing of the river has sped up the currents as a consequence. A few miles northeast of Kansas City was a place where such alterations occurred, shifting the river half a mile to the east – thus covering the wreck of the Arabia in a cornfield.
In the autumn of 1988, local furnace repair company owner Bob Hawley, his sons, and two family friends found the exact place where the Arabia sank. After they tracked the main deck in the soil and established the excavation site, which was the size of a football field, the team was able to start digging up the wreck that was lying 45 feet below the surface.
On November 26, 1988, for the first time in more than a century, the Arabia was exposed to fresh air again. In the coming days, objects from its vessel began to appear, and slowly, as the cargo deck was unearthed, the crew found a staggering amount of long-lost artifacts.
After more than 130 days, the excavation had come to an end, and the result was the largest pre-Civil War era collection in the world. Moreover, the mud had preserved everything in mint and pristine condition. The jars of preserved fruits are still edible and the still fragrant tobacco could still be smoked in one of the dozens of preserved clay pipes.
The world’s oldest pickle, along with liquor, beads, footwear, tools, ketchup, delicate pins, rings, and many more were also found aboard the sunken time capsule. The collection pretty much includes everything that could be bought in a 19th century general store.
However, gold and barrels of whiskey weren’t found at the site, but getting rich wasn’t the goal for the family of Hawley and their friends. The members of the team who excavated the Arabia vowed not to sell any of the artifacts, and to instead preserve the collection.
The Arabia collection is large enough to establish a museum in Kansas City, and to this day the recovered artifacts are kept in the Arabia Steamboat Museum. No finds are for sale and their preservation is supported only by visitors interested in viewing the museum and its treasures.