February 25, 2024

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RIP, Steamboat Arabia’s Bob Hawley–Patriarch, Patriot, Adventurer

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After a long and remarkably fruitful life, Bob Hawley of Independence, Missouri, died on Monday. The patriarch of a large and loving family and a patriot to his core, Bob was best known for a late life adventure that defied the odds and made history.

Steamboat Arabia’s Bob Hawley and wife Flo.

Thirty years ago, at an age when most men world have been content to retreat to the La-Z-Boy, Bob undertook a slightly more ambitious project. He, his sons Greg and David, and family friend Jerry Mackey set out to do something that all the experts told them was undoable: unearth a steamboat that had sunk in the Missouri River more than 130 years prior.

The academic community was particularly dismissive. The Hawleys, who ran a mom and pop HVAC business in Independence, and Mackey, who owned a hamburger restaurant, did not have a year of college among them.

What they did have was grit and uncommon resourcefulness. In the spring of 1988, David, the family historian, located the Steamboat Arabia buried deep below a Kansas cornfield, a good half-mile from the river, which had shifted over time.

The fellows then had to determine the boat’s exact position, and this they did through a series of test drillings. Throughout the summer and fall of 1988, they assembled equipment for moving massive amounts of earth and water, including bulldozers, backhoes, well-drilling equipment, and a 100-foot crane they floated down to the site. They financed this by mortgaging just about everything they could mortgage.

The farmer who owned the field permitted them to dig only if it could be made ready again for spring planting. This meant one brutal winter of hard work.

To lower the water level, the fellows had to drill 20 irrigation wells around the boat. These 65-feet deep wells, operating 24/7, drained as much as 20,000 gallons per minute out of the hole and into the Missouri.

It took two weeks of digging before the top of the paddlewheel poked through. The guys eventually made their way to the deck fighting desperately against the water and the deep winter weather with every foot they dug.

They found no gold, not even the 200 barrels of Kentucky bourbon alleged to be on board. What they found instead were crates and barrels filled with every imaginable kind of frontier merchandise, most of it perfectly preserved in the cold, airless mud.

The fellows realized they had found something rarer than gold: an unmatched material record of a treasured time and place. Indeed, theirs would prove to be the greatest collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the entire world.

To preserve this collection’s historic and emotional value, they realized they would have to keep it together. This meant going back to the bank for more money, teaching themselves the arts of preservation and restoration, and building their own museum to display the collection.

This they succeeded in doing without a dime of foundation money or government grants. The result was spectacular. The Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City is one of the few anywhere that turns a profit, and it does so because it is so well loved.

Essential to its success has been the calm, guiding hand of Bob and the dedication of wife Flo who has run the gift shop. Younger son Greg died ten years ago this month in a tragic car accident that shook the family but did not deter them. Older son David continues the work of the museum and is looking to add a new boat to the museum, which has been accurately described as an “1856 Wal-Mart.”

For all his accomplishments, Bob Hawley remained humble and grateful to the end. He will be missed.



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