Steamer In The Cornfield

By Jerry D. Haight


Sooner or later it seems nothing comes as a surprising anymore.  Such probably was the case when the elderly Kansas farmer, comfortable in his easy chair, content after a big dinner heard a knock at his door. “Can you get it, Bea?”; he asked, then overhearing the muted conversations of his wife at the door as she invited the strangers into their home, put down his paper and pipe and prepared to receive the visitors. Bea’s father had farmed their fertile land for nearly half a century before poor health forced him to retire in Kansas City some sixty miles away. Bea and Norman continued working the farm for some thirty years, raising mostly corn. The visitors, as it turned out, were Greg and Dave Hawley they were asking permission to dig up their cornfield in an effort to find a steamship called the Arabia, also known as the Great White Arabia. 1853 was the birth of the one hundred seventy foot long steamship in the Pringle Boat Building Company on the banks of the Monongahela River near Brownsville Pennsylvania.


The Arabian was a special breed of steamship, able to float in just four feet of water. It was said by Rivermen that “a steamboat built properly can float on a head of beer, or on the sands of Arabia”. With a 220-ton cargo capacity, the Arabia traveled on both the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and then in 1855 began serving towns along the Missouri from its home in St. Louis. The steamer made numerous trips upriver deep into Indian Territory, as far as Pierre, South Dakota. The river was a lifeline to the west and steamships like the Arabian carried soldiers, immigrants, gun-smuggling abolitionists, businessmen, and common travelers. Their cargo consisted mostly of general merchandise that would supply the needs of farmers, merchants, blacksmiths, carpenters, hunters, trappers, soldiers and missionaries. An article in the Squatter Sovereign, from Atchison, Kansas, elaborated on it’s cargo as almost every article in the line of dry goods, groceries, hardware, queensware (earthenware perfected by Wedgewood), hats, caps, boots, shoes and other clothing.


Old Muddy is the nickname of the treacherous Missouri River with ever shifting bottom sand and mud. What might be a safe passage one day, could well be a sand bar the next. But as great a danger of the sands and mud,  the greatest danger were massive trees, called snags, stripped of their branches by the current, stuck in the bottom just underwater pointing downriver like giant skewers waiting to poke massive holes in ships bottoms as they powered their way upriver. As a result, the life of a steamship on the Missouri was less than five years and even shorter for the Great White. It was late in the afternoon of September 5, 1856 when the Arabian, laden with 200 tons of frontier supplies and carrying 130 passengers slammed into a walnut snag near Parkville Missouri and within ten minutes, sank out of sight on the Missouri side of the river.. Fortunately, everyone got off the ship in time so there were no lives lost except that of a mule, but all the possessions of most of the passengers went down with the massive ship. The great steamship would lie in its watery grave for more than a hundred thirty two years.


“Don’t you know, the Arabia sunk in Missouri?”, the Kansas farmer may have protested. Yes, the Arabia sank on the Missouri side of the river, but no one really controls a river and its continual meandering alters state lines adds to ones property and takes another’s away. The border between Kansas and Missouri runs down the center of the Missouri River and as the river meanders, so does the state line.  Dave and Greg calculated the resting place of the Arabia as over half a mile into Kansas as the river shifted to the north and east of where it was when the Arabia sank, and in the middle of the cornfield of Bea and Norman. Over the years, several groups, intrigued by rumors of more 400 barrels of Kentucky’s finest Bourbon Whiskey said to be on the Arabian sought it. The rumors made the Arabian a legend in local taverns, barber shops and aristocratic events and treasure hunters and dreamers spun magical tales of the unforgettable Great White Arabia.


The Hawley family was far more than just treasure hunters and dreamers for with every dream must come action so over the course of three years, the Hawleys searched and researched all the information involving the river and the ship, frequently haunting the libraries, court documents and newspaper files. During the year following their first visit, the Hawleys met with Norman and Bea Sorter many times, convincing them with their tenacity, work ethic and honesty they had the will and means for success. They finally gave their consent to dig for the Arabian. Then with the aid of a powerful magnetometer, the boat was tentatively located and with the aid of numerous pilot holes the hull was outlined with flags on the surface directly over the Arabian forty-five feet below.  But as the next few years would reveal, there is a vast difference between locating and accessing. The cornfield lay on top of fine silt that retained water and sand in a glue like consistency, much like cement. In fact, the goo-like substance clung to every shoe, shovel, pick, bucket and pipe. The water table was just a scant few feet below the surface and any hole dug below the table would immediately fill up.


Their task was extremely dangerous and the danger of cave-ins alone just about ended their salvage task and their lives even before their task started in earnest in November 1987. It happened as they got engrossed in their digging that suddenly, they looked up at the ladder and realized their danger just as the hole was about to cave in. Fortunately, the cave in found the pair on the surface, much shaken, but also much wiser  It was the property of the Missouri mud that prevented salvage of the Arabia after it sunk and it was that same nature that infiltrated almost every object on the Steamboat and thus preserved it for more than a century. The team of excavators eventually was successful, enduring long, bitter cold, back braking days, absent from their families. Every estimate of the financing needed for completion proved far short and necessitated a continual succession of additional investment from shareholders. In short, the excavation required building a caisson surrounding the ship and drilling more than twenty wells with massive caissons and pumped more than 20,000 gallons of water per minute back into the Missouri and then, the wells barely kept up with the water table. Within a few months after breaking ground, they reached the Arabia forty-five feet below the surface of the corn field but then came the task of wresting the unexpected treasures from the ever present silt.