These Guys Made History—and Want to Make It Again

Thanks to some entrepreneurial treasure-hunters, the state has a rare historical opportunity within its grasp.


By Jack Cashill


At a time when our home grown Red Guard are out toppling statues and smashing icons in their vain effort to erase history, there are others working to preserve our history, none more consequentially than David Hawley.

It was almost 30 years ago when David, his father Bob, brother Greg, and friend Jerry Mackey, undertook one of the great entrepreneurial adventures in local memory. They mortgaged just about everything they could mortgage, taught themselves just about everything they could learn, and set out to dig up a steamboat that lay buried under a Kansas farm field for the previous 130 years.

At the time, the academic community had little interest in the project and less respect for the adventurers. The Hawleys ran a mom-and-pop HVAC business, and Mackey owned a hamburger restaurant. They had scarcely a college credit among them.

What they did have was grit and uncommon resourcefulness. Without a dime of foundation money or government grants, they unearthed the boat and opened the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City to showcase its treasures. 

This is one of the few museums anywhere that turns a profit, and it does so because it is so universally loved. As famed historian David McCullough told Kansas City Public Library honcho Crosby Kemper III, “The Steamboat Arabia is the best small historical museum in America.”

Can Lightning Strike Twice?

Greg Hawley died in a tragic car accident nine years ago, but David is back at it with the support of father Bob and Jerry Mackey. The family historian, David was the one who got his family interested in steamboats and the one who located the Arabia across the Missouri River from Parkville, Mo. 

The boat he has found this time is the Malta. Built in Pittsburgh in 1839, the steamboat sank in 1841 at a bend in the Missouri about halfway between Kansas City and Columbia. Over the years, the bend shifted, leaving the Malta about 1,500 feet south of the river, just north of the only town in America named after a sunken boat, Malta Bend. 

Excavating the Malta will be costly. Funding the excavation will be a good deal more complex than the funding of the Arabia, and Hawley is turning to the community for help. A lot is at stake—not just the bounty the Malta will serve up, but also the extraordinary treasures of the Arabia, the single greatest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world.

Finding the Malta was no simple matter. The historical record could tell David roughly where the boat sank, but not exactly where. David estimates he tramped some 300 miles through farmers’ fields with a very sophisticated metal detector in hand before identifying the precise outline of the Malta.

The historical record was silent on other critical issues. It did not say whether the Malta was traveling up-river to the frontier or down-river to St. Louis. Everything hinged on the direction. If the Malta were traveling up, it would have held a slew of manufactured goods for settlers or for barter with the Indians. If it were heading back to St. Louis, it would have contained mostly just the furs that had been traded for the goods. Beaver pelts tend to lose their value after molding in the mud for 175 years.

To find out, David and his team had to drill some extensive core samples. When the samples came back with 150 gold-plated buttons, British-made ceramics, and delicate fabrics, they were in business. The one pepper pot they unearthed could have had an eBay value of $2,500. 

Without a dime of foundation cash or government grants, four intrepid souls recovered a treasure buried beneath a Kansas farm field and opened the Steamboat Arabia Museum.

The Arabia collection has been assessed at $12 million. Were the items sold individually or in lots—like, say, the 3 million beads set aside for Indian trade—they would be worth considerably more.

David and his partners, however, have no interest in breaking up the collection. “It has been a joy and a privilege,” David says, “to rediscover this all-but-lost era in American history.” His ultimate goal is to exhume a boat from each of the six decades steamboats plied the Missouri River. It is not unrealistic: Some 400 boats sank, fully half of them in Missouri.

Recently, David and his partners contracted with the History Channel to a do a major production on the Malta. He and the producers have talked about making this the first in a series of excavation stories. If the Malta were a one-off, David could borrow the $2-$3 million he would need off the strength of the Arabia collection. If a series, he would need sponsors to make long-term planning possible.

David is confident that the exposure from the History Channel will spike attendance at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in the City Market, which will cause problems in itself. The city has already taken a good chunk of the Arabia’s precious parking allotment to feed the streetcar.

The Malta collection will tax the available space at the current site. The Arabia people know it is time to move. They have been courted heavily by out-of-state interests, most notably by the Heinz History Center, the largest history museum in the state of Pennsylvania, and an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, and the museum with which McCullough himself is affiliated. The Arabia and the Malta were both built in the Pittsburgh area. 

At the heart of the museum’s success has been the remarkable storytelling ability of the proprietors. The museum, which has accurately been described as an “1856 Wal-Mart,” comes to life when they share with visitors their passion for our history and their respect for the pioneers who made it. 

Hawley and his partners hail from Independence. They have no desire to leave the state, and if things break their way, they wont have any reason to do so. 

Although Missouri supports a slew of museums, many of them marginal, it has no equivalent of the Heinz History Center. Thanks to David and his partners, the state now has within its grasp the potential to create the nation’s single richest re-creation of the true western experience. It would be a crime to let that potential slip away.  

Jack Cashill, Senior Editor

JCashill@Ingrams.com

About the author

Jack Cashill is Ingram's Senior Editor and has been affiliated with the magazine for more than 30 years. He can be reached at jackcashill@yahoo.com. The views expressed in this column are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Ingram's Magazine.

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