Excavation of another steamboat could benefit local communities

Tantalizing news recently drifted upriver. The Hawley family and partners are pondering whether to dig up another steamboat from Missouri River muck. 

There’s a Platte County and Parkville connection, and a hint of a new one.

The Hawleys operate the Steamboat Arabia Museum in the City Market near where Kansas City was founded. They excavated the Arabia in the 1980s from sediment in an old channel on what’s now the river’s west shore. History accounts, however, repeatedly note that the Arabia sank in 1856 near Parkville, Mo. 

In recent times a plaque about the boat and its recovery into a remarkable museum was dedicated along the riverfront trail in Parkville. 

Now, David Hawley and crew are doing surveys to see if they’ve found the Malta, a steamboat that sank downriver in Saline County in 1841. They’re drilling in the sediment for the outline of the boat and samples of cargo. The exploration recently hosted a visitor day for school children and others, and The Kansas City Star noted that Parkville mayor Nan Johnston was among the onlookers. 

Johnston said the city would like hosting a steamboat museum. 

Many of us who live elsewhere in Platte County are applauding that thought, too. Riverboat trade and the county’s 19th century position on the western frontier made Parkville and Weston prominent ports. Iatan was a stopover. 

In some ways this is a lost history, too. 

The river changed course from all points except Parkville, which was the natural order of the river’s hydrology to start with. But then the river was ditched with dikes and levees after World War II for navigation and to keep flood water (sometimes) out of farm fields. No wharfs or evidence of them remain in our county, unless they were buried by the river’s shifts of sand and mud before the channel was locked in place.

Steamboats that plied the Missouri River in our area from the 1820s to the 1880s are long gone, too. These were not the long, luxurious boats you’ll see in movies lazily steaming down the Mississippi River, which was far more navigable. 

The Missouri was a difficult river with shifting sandbars, snags and swift current. One book I read in the past year talked of a vast area of snags in place above Weston. 

Boats that came our way were generally smaller, although bear in mind the engineering changed with the times. 

Most of those boats sank, burned, were destroyed by boiler explosions or were salvaged for other uses. That’s another reason the Hawley family’s efforts to bring pieces and cargo back to the light of day is so fascinating. 

Plus, despite only 15 years difference between their sinking dates, the Malta could give a very different picture of the West than the Arabia.

We think the pace of change today is fast, and it is, but it might have seemed the same to folks back in the days when steam power was granting speed and momentum to the startup of the industrial age in America. 

The pioneer Chouteau family owned the Malta and their primary business was the fur and hide trade. Did the Malta carry upstream a cargo of iron kettles, knives, hatchets, wool blankets and beads, trade goods for the fur trade? Or did it carry furs and hides downstream on a return trip? 

The Hawleys told The Star they’re unsure, and such things need to be known before undertaking an excavation that likely would cost in seven figures.

The Arabia recovery required unique and expensive steps to dig, pump water from the site and carefully remove artifacts. 

Being buried preserved shoes, foodstuffs, clothes and other things bound for general stores on the upper Great Plains, but exposing them to oxygen and the elements can cause rapid decay without intensive and expensive preservation methods. 

The Arabia was worth it. A world-class museum is in Kansas City. Where one museum might have a single pair of interesting shoes and or a hat from the pre-Civil War period, the Arabia museum has crates full of them. They have more to display than they have space to do so, a reason for them to consider looking north.

Phillip E. Chappell in his “History of Steamboating On the Missouri River” includes a list of all boats known to have plied the river. References to the Platte County area are common. 

For example, the Colonel Wood ascended to Platte City on the Platte River during the flood of 1844. The Admiral sank near Weston in the late 1840s. Notable people of those times embarked or disembarked here.

Here’s hoping the Hawley family and partners find a way to bring up the Malta, and Parkville or Weston managed to land a portion for an interpretive center.

 Bill Graham, who lives in the Platte City area, may be reached by e-mail at editor@plattecountycitizen.com.