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The Arabia: Pittsburgh's Lost Steamboat

on Wed, 12/17/2014 - 00:00

As a young boy, Greg Hawley and his father would explore abandoned gold mines in the hopes of finding buried treasure. Those dreams of adventure faded, however, as Hawley reached adulthood and went to work for the family’s air conditioning and refrigeration business in Independence, Missouri.

Then in 1985, at the age of 27, Greg Hawley, his father and brothers discovered the legend of sunken steamboats on the Missouri River that contained hidden treasures of their own. Three years later, their search for those lost artifacts came to fruition when they uncovered the remains of the Arabia, a steamship from the Pittsburgh region that capsized after hitting an underwater tree branch on September 5, 1856, sinking to the bottom of the Missouri River shortly thereafter.

During late 1988 and early 1989, Greg Hawley and his family excavated the vast majority of the 200 tons of tools, housewares, boots, lumber, food and other supplies that the Arabia was carrying during its final voyage. Despite investing over $700,000 of their own money into the effort with the intentions of reaping the bounty for profit, the Hawleys later decided to preserve their findings and open the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City instead.

The resulting Museum not only tells the story of the Arabia but also offers a snapshot into the past and the thousands of Americans who risked everything to populate the open frontier of the Midwest United States. On April 26, 2014, the Senator John Heinz History Center unveiled many of the Arabia’s relics as part of its Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat exhibit—which ran through January 11, 2015—enabling residents of the Steel City to witness that important part of American history for themselves.

Pittsburgh’s role in steamboat navigation of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers began in 1812. Although the rivers of the Midwest offered a quick means of transportation, most boats at the time had difficulty maneuvering through the twists, turns and heavy currents of the Mississippi and Missouri. Robert Fulton—the “Father of the Steamboat”—and his partners thus constructed a specially designed steamboat to prove such navigation was indeed possible and launched their ship from the Steel City.

The success of the endeavor opened the Midwest to pioneers and settlers alike, with steamboats providing a steady stream of supplies, especially in preparation for winter months. With Pittsburgh’s unique position at the base of the Ohio River and easy access to other major metropolises on the East Coast, the region served as the starting point for many steamboat journeys. The Arabia, meanwhile, was built at the John Snyder Pringle boatyard in Brownsville, forty miles south of Pittsburgh, and operated on the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for three years before sinking in the Missouri.

In his book Treasure in a Cornfield (Paddle Wheel Publishing, 1998), Greg Hawley relates the story of how his family uncovered and preserved the remains of the Arabia. It is estimated that between 300 and 400 steamboats sank in the Midwest during the Nineteenth Century heyday of steamboat travel, and the shifting course of the Missouri River over the years since has meant that many of those wreckages are now buried under farmland as opposed to the bottom of the river itself.

In 1985, Greg Hawley and his family began their search to uncover one of these lost steamboats, making an initial list of nine potentials based upon their research. Due to either an inability to locate them, difficulty in extracting them, or uncertainty of what actually remained within them, eight of those steamboats were eventually scratched off the list—leaving only the Arabia.

Locating the Arabia was not difficult. Shortly after it sank, a legend regarding the lost steamboat soon made the rounds within the region, suggesting that 400 barrels of Kentucky’s finest bourbon whiskey had been onboard. Three previous expeditions had thus already been launched to uncover this modern day buried treasure. The first attempt was in 1877 and was led by Robert Treadway and Henry Tobener of Kansas City. After four months, a cost of $2,000 and nothing but one case of felt hats found for their efforts, Treadway and Tobener ended their quest.

In 1897, Gale “Dad” Henson took up the cause but likewise ceased his operation after three attempts failed to discover any cargo. Then in 1975, Jessie Purcell and Sam Corbino launched a new search, but since the Arabia was buried below the water table, they were unable to pump out the vast amount of water that kept the Arabia flooded.

Because of those previous excursions, the Hawley family knew where to look for the Arabia—on farmland owned by Norman Sorter. Sorter believed that any additional attempts to uncover the steamboat were both useless and foolhardy, but after a year of negotiations, he agreed to allow the Hawleys onto his land nonetheless. Greg Hawley’s father came up with the idea of using agricultural irrigation pumps to remove the water that engulfed the Arabia and shift it into the Missouri River.

It was estimated that twelve pumps would be needed at a cost of $250,000. By the time the Hawleys finished their expedition, twenty pumps were in use and the cost had skyrocketed to over $800,000. Every time they considered shutting down, however, a new bounty of artifacts was uncovered, and despite harsh weather and long hours of hard work, the family persevered until the very end.

The rumored 400 barrels of bourbon were never found, but the Hawleys discovered crate-after-crate of supplies and personal belongings during their three month salvage efforts. Instead of buried treasure, however, each new discovery offered a glimpse into the past and the lives of those who had travelled on the Arabia.

“During a partner’s meeting, we unanimously decided the most priceless thing discovered aboard the Arabia was not the cargo, but the story it told,” Greg Hawley writes in Treasure in a Cornfield. “Each time we opened a new box of merchandise, we understood more fully the needs and wants of the westward traveler. Each time we looked in a box containing personal belongings, we immersed ourselves in the life of that individual. Whether the items represented a poor traveler or a rich one, we instantly knew what that person held most precious in their life. Inside their boxes were the things chosen above all else in the world to move west.”

In the end, the Hawley family invested close to $1.5 million dollars on not just excavating the Arabia but preserving the artifacts and opening the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City. “The Hawley family has spent 25 years tending to what they unearthed from the Arabia in 1989,” the Pittsburgh’s Lost Steamboat exhibit at the Heinz History Center declared. “They have spent countless hours developing a museum and conserving and preparing objects for display. They sewed shoes back together by hand and cleaned thousands of beads, nails and other tiny objects. They estimate that they will need another 25 years before everything is done.”

The advent of the railroad industry eventually ended the reign of the steamboat as the primary means of transportation in the Midwest, but the importance of the steamboat during its heyday of the mid-Nineteenth Century cannot be understated. Twenty First Century Americans, meanwhile, can now view artifacts from that past and gain a better understanding of life on the Wild Frontier in process—all because a family of treasure hunters realized the true value of the artifacts that they had discovered.

Anthony Letizia

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