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Steamboat hunters pry tantalizing clues from wreck beneath soybean field

For more than two years, veteran steamboat hunter David Hawley spent two or three days a week walking mid-Missouri farmland toting a magnetometer, a machine capable of detecting metal deep underground.

He trudged back and forth in a grid pattern, eventually covering 300 miles, determined no matter how long it took to locate a 177-year-old sunken steamboat called the Malta.

All that walking gave him plenty of time to ponder and plan the future.

Success would mean another steamboat excavation, he hoped. More artifacts to clean, research and display. Perhaps the creation of a weekly television series that could mix excavation scenes with historical stories from the steamboat era. Plus, he and his partners would need a bigger museum.

Their Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City’s River Market is too small to display all of that boat’s 1856 cargo, let alone 100 tons more from the Malta, which the Missouri River swallowed 15 years before it claimed the Arabia in present-day Kansas.

Yet any new excavation, coming nearly three decades after the Arabia’s, would hinge on whether the Malta had been carrying supplies and Indian trading goods to the Yellowstone River frontier. If the Malta had been going downriver instead, toward St. Louis, toting furs or buffalo hides, its cargo would not be worth digging up at an estimated $2 million cost, twice what the group spent unearthing the Arabia.

As he pondered all of this during his patient walks 80 miles east of Kansas City, Hawley’s resolve to find the Malta never wavered.

“He doesn’t have much give-up in him,” said Jerry Mackey, one of the steamboat Arabia partners. “Our whole group is pretty much that way.”

And now the whole group eagerly awaits its next adventure — a four-month excavation of the Malta expected to start about a year from now. The current weather pattern is too wet to attempt a recovery this winter, the best time of year to dig to protect frail artifacts from summer heat and humidity.

But at least the group now knows that the Malta had been steaming upstream, along a bend in the river, when a submerged tree snag tore open its belly in September 1841.

Buttons, wool, lard and other artifacts pulled up this summer from inside the boat prove that.

“This boat was going north,” Hawley said. “That means it is a great boat to dig.”

Though the Malta sank quickly, all aboard survived. Over the decades, silt and dirt encased the boat. As the river channel migrated north, it left the boat underground instead of under water.

Today, the Malta rests from 37 to 53 feet below a soybean field near present-day Malta Bend, believed to be the only town named after a sunken Missouri River steamboat. The river flows about 1,500 feet to the north, hidden behind a tree line.

Digging up a second steamboat may seem redundant, especially when the Arabia museum cannot begin to display that boat’s estimated 200,000 artifacts. So why go to the trouble and expense?

Because there’s much to be learned from a different time period of river commerce, Hawley said.

The Malta and the Arabia were similar in that they were wood-hulled, side-wheel steamers navigating the often treacherous Missouri River long before the Army Corps of Engineers tamed it. But their differences are significant, and intriguing.

First, 15 years separate the two boats at a time when the country was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution. The type and quality of the goods found on the respective boats should reflect that difference.

Second, the Arabia was taking supplies and food upriver to settlers. Often described as a floating Wal-Mart, it carried just about everything one would need, from tools and school slates to a prefabricated house. At 180 feet in length, it could push 220 tons against the current. The Malta, 40 feet shorter, could push 114 tons.

The Malta carried supplies for fur trading posts and trappers in present-day Montana and, most likely, goods for trading with the Native Americans. It was co-owned by Capt. Joseph Throckmorton and Pierre Chouteau Jr. of St. Louis, part of the famous extended fur-trading family so important to the histories of St. Louis and Kansas City.

“From a historical standpoint, this is a real find,” said Metropolitan Community College history professor Bill Worley, one of several historians and archaeologists that the Malta dig team has consulted.

The chance to obtain its cargo, “the actual material – to get a sense of what that was and what the trade would have been like – is really quite phenomenal,” Worley said.

Glints of gold

An experienced storyteller from his decades of leading tours at the Arabia museum, Hawley already tells the Malta discovery story with gusto.

There was his long magnetometer search, undertaken with the landowner’s permission.

Then after Hawley located metal underground – the boat’s boilers and two engines provided big targets – the excavation partners began test drilling. Sometimes, they pulled up only mud. Other times, they recovered wood chunks from the boat’s hull.

They charted each hit and miss.

They expected the Malta to be facing east or west. Instead, it sat on a north-south line, where a river bend had existed.

More drilling confirmed the boat’s outline – a perfect match to the Malta’s 140-by-22-foot frame. The upper cabins remained intact, too, offering the partners something the Arabia had lacked.

Eventually, drilling also pinpointed the bow and stern. And the bow indeed pointed north, providing the first solid evidence that the Malta had been headed upriver.

To confirm that a worthy cargo existed, the partners needed a core sample from the boat’s interior. They picked a spot about 20 feet from the bow and off to one side, to avoid the boat’s center crossbeam. As they sent the core driller down, they hoped not to find buffalo hides.

After the drill returned to the surface, it spilled out dirt containing glints of something gold.

Wiping away mud revealed buttons – 150 smooth-faced buttons, each with a loop on the back for sewing to a garment. On the backs, the English manufacturer had stamped three words: rich, orange, warranted.

“The ‘rich’ was the way they graded buttons,” Hawley said recently at the Arabia headquarters as he showed visitors a pile of cleaned buttons. “Orange was the color of the finish, which was in this case gold. ‘Warranted’ was like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval back from the day.”

Testing showed that the buttons mostly contain copper and zinc but likely are gold-plated. They had been packed on strips of wool laced with hair-thin woven wire.


Hawley reached for a plastic tub and unsnapped its lid.

“This is my show-and-tell box,” he said.

Using tweezers, he lifted out other artifacts. Scraps of wool. Pieces of a ceramic pot. Shards of thin clear glass.

Window glass, perhaps?

“This is why you dig boats,” Hawley said. “You learn so much. You have assumptions, you think you know, but you don’t really know.”

He figures that some of the wool fabric came from red and black blankets meant for trading with Native Americans. Another recovered wool piece has a finished edge and crimping, as if it were the end of a fluted sleeve turned inside out.

The core sampling drill likely broke the glass and ceramic pot. Not wanting to damage anything else, the partners decided against sending the drill back down. So the rest of the Malta’s cargo remains a mystery.

As the partners researched the broken ceramic pieces, they determined they came from a 4-inch pepper pot, similar to a pepper shaker but larger and with more holes in the top. The coloring, shape and twig design on its belly perfectly matched a color picture of an 1820 English pearlware pepper pot they found for sale online. Its price: $2,400.

As they did with the Arabia’s treasures, the excavation partners plan to exhibit — not sell — the Malta’s cargo. They’ve set up the nonprofit Arabia Museum Foundation to be the owner.

Dreaming big

Born and raised in Malta Bend, farmer Jim Backes keeps running into townsfolk happy that he is letting the Arabia’s partners dig up his field.

“I think it’s good for the town,” said Backes, who has agreed to plant next spring around the Malta’s outline, so as to not disturb the site.

His father bought that land in 1940 but couldn’t farm it until after the Corps of Engineers built a rock dam along the Missouri that kept the river from back-flowing into the old channel. Yet even these days, Backes expects flooding about every fifth year. Predicting one is like predicting a hurricane, he said. “You never know when it’s going to show up.”

Indeed, the Malta’s resting place flooded three times this year, once wiping out part of a corn crop. So waiting until next fall to start a dig makes sense, Hawley said. No one wants to open a large hole and see a flood fill it back in.

The delay also gives Hawley time to line up a television deal, firm up financing for the dig and explore options for a new museum site.

He envisions a weekly television show featuring the Malta excavation and riverboat-era history lessons. Some 400 steamboats sank in the Missouri River, about 200 of them between Kansas City and St. Louis.

“It was just such a short era,” Hawley said. “It starts on the Missouri in the 1820s, and the railroads had taken over by the 1880s, and then it was gone.

“The boats sank and they weren’t around anymore. You couldn’t see them, so that chapter of history was just sort of forgotten. But the cool thing is it’s still buried down there. You’ve got to find it, but it’s a heck of a discovery when you do.”

In 1987, the dig partners excavated the Missouri Packet, an early 1820s stern-wheeler that sank near Boonville, Mo. No cargo remained but they brought up the engine, which is a piece of history itself.

The next year the partners targeted the Arabia, a side-wheeler that hit a snag and sank just below Parkville in August 1856.

Like the Malta, the Arabia was entombed in more than 40 feet of mud and sand, below what is now a farm field and to the south of the current river channel. During the late fall and early winter, the salvagers hauled up tons of cargo, including preserved foodstuffs and cognac as well as jewelry, top hats and flintlock rifles.

After searching for a home, the Arabia group signed a deal with Kansas City to occupy a renovated 33,000-square-foot building at 400 Grand Blvd. The museum almost immediately became a popular attraction, drawing about 200,000 visitors the first year and now averaging about 80,000 annually.

There are an estimated 10 years’ worth of Arabia artifacts still to be cleaned but no more display space. It would not be possible to cram the Malta’s artifacts into that museum, so the salvage partners are looking for a new home.

Hawley dreams of finding a place large enough to accommodate exhibits pulled from steamboats that sank from the 1820s to the 1860s.

“This is the bigger plan,” he said.

After entering such a museum, visitors ideally would see an entire riverboat before exploring galleries dedicated to each decade. The Malta would represent the 1840s and the Arabia the 1850s.

Already, Hawley has talked about museum possibilities with people in Kansas City, Parkville, Independence, Boonville and Arrow Rock, Mo., and Pittsburgh, where the Malta was built in 1839.

The current Malta excavation plan is to start setting 70-foot wells in September to pump ground water away from the dig site. It takes about a day to set each well. About 20 will be needed, Hawley said.

By October 2017, if the weather is decent and temperatures are cooling, excavators would begin digging with heavy construction equipment.

After reaching the boat, the excavation team plans to load recovered artifacts into a refrigeration truck. Each night, the truck will return to the River Market for its contents to be unloaded into Arabia museum freezers. Then it will rumble back to Malta Bend for another day of loading.

After the Arabia sank, its cargo remained underground for 132 years.

When the Malta’s artifacts surface next year, 176 years will have passed since the Missouri River claimed the boat.

As such, the Malta dig feels “maybe a little more exciting” than the Arabia one, Mackey said.

“And I still get goose pimples,” he said, “when I go down the (museum) ramp to the Arabia.”

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