Friday, September 10, 2021

Treasure Hunting


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  Can you believe it’s September already? While our world isn’t exactly all roses at the moment, let me take you back in time to September 5, 1856. On that day near Parkville, Kansas, 150 people lost all their possessions as they were tossed into the river when the Steamboat Arabia, on which they traveled, hit a tree limb and sank within minutes. (And you thought you were having a bad day.) Note that at this time there was no travel insurance, either for the people or for the 200 tons of cargo the Arabia transported. Although no lives were lost, possessions and cargo sank beneath the river and would not be rediscovered for another 130 years.

Over the years since 1856, many people have searched for the Arabia as there was a reported large quantity of whiskey on board which would fetch quite a sum at market. When it was finally discovered and unearthed in 1988 in a Kansas cornfield there was no whiskey, but there was a treasure-trove of pre Civil War goods heading for the wilderness around Omaha, NE. The first intent by the salvagers was to sell the treasure but they decided to restore and preserve, thus we now have a wonderful working museum down at River Market in Kansas City.  It’s not your traditional treasure of gold and silver but rather a time capsule of the 1850s. I was amazed at the amount and diversity of goods aboard the steamboat.

Everything from buttons and shoes to construction tools and preserved pickles are artfully displayed in the museum. On any given day, visitors can watch preservationists diligently working on other uncovered items that tell a story not readily available in our history books.

            Even though the Arabia museum is a work in progress and the restoration of artifacts continues, Dave Hawley (one of the original treasure hunters) has continued searching for other steamboats. The Missouri River has an estimated 300-400 sunken riverboats, many of which are now deep beneath farm fields as the river has changed course over the years. In 2016 he finally located the Malta, a steamboat sunk in 1841, loaded with Indian trading supplies for the American Fur Company.

 Aboard the side-wheeler steamer was cargo for Peter Sarpy, Papin & Robidoux and other Chouteau trading posts and merchants along the Missouri River. Once metal detectors hit a strong signal they drilled for a core sample which resulted in finding 150 gold buttons, fabric, well-preserved ceramics and a large iron hook. But as of today, the Malta is still 37 feet underground as the cost of excavation is around $3 million. You can find out more at Malta | The Arabia Steamboat Museum | Kansas City (

            From the time the Arabia museum opened, I have been an avid visitor anytime I’m in town. The evolving displays fascinate me; the history of the river and steamboats lure me into a past which I know was much harsher than how I romanticize it. Yet that is what fiction writing is about – taking a real event and spinning a tale of romance and intrigue. I love entwining the past with the present and especially like having the museum at my fingertips for research. I invite you to come aboard the Arabia with me on her last fateful journey by getting a copy of “Hold On To the Past” (available at

Sunken steamboats on the river or storm-wrecked sailing vessels on the ocean – these are the settings for legends, tall tales and great historical novels.


Barb Baldwin


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