Hundreds of steamboats are buried underground along the banks of the Missouri River. We just don’t know where they are. One of them, however, was recently discovered under a cornfield near Malta Bend, Missouri, about 80 miles east of Kansas City.
That's where Nellie Backes Mertensmeyer grew up on the Backes farm. When he was a child, Steve Mertensmeyer's mother told him about a steamboat residing somewhere on that land. It was part of the local folklore.
"The story was that's why Malta Bend is named Malta Bend: because the Malta sank in the bend," said Mertensmeyer.
He decided to find out if it was true, so he visited David Hawley, the owner and founder of the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City’s City Market. Hawley used to work in heating and air-conditioning, but discovered his love for steamboats when he saw pictures of them hung alongside maps of UFO and Bigfoot sightings at a client’s home.
“Well, I'm not sure about the Bigfoot and flying saucers, but the steamboats, that could be interesting," he remembered thinking. "After work that day I went to the library and checked out books on steamboats, and I’ve been looking for them ever since."
Hawley uncovered the Steamboat Arabia from a field about half a mile from the Missouri River’s present channel. The boat itself is still being unearthed, but Hawley's museum now displays the artifacts preserved inside it, a collection of 200 tons worth of historical objects that sank in 1856.
Hawley had heard of the Malta and he was intrigued by Mertensmeyer's story, so he went out to the farm and started poking around.
"There is not a book that says 'Steamboat Hunting for Dummies,'" Hawley said.
Armed with a map and a metal detector, he walked 300 miles, sectioning the property into a grid. Sure enough, he found an area that seemed promising.
"I said, 'Let's drill.' At 37 feet, boom! We hit something really hard,” Hawley recalled.
The drill brought up pieces of oak and pine, combined with a high concentration of metal. At 37 feet underground, that could only be one thing: a sunken steamboat.
The results of the drilling matched the Malta's dimensions: 141 feet long, 22 feet wide. In addition to bits of wood, they drilled up 150 gold buttons and pieces of ceramic vessels and window glass. The contents were perfectly preserved because they'd been buried in mud.
“There is no oxygen, there is no sunlight. Those boats, even the ones that sank in the 1820s and 1830s, they remain there basically as they were when they sank," said Hawley. Later he added, "Not only is this buried treasure, it is historical treasure that is all about, in this case, Missouri."
Further excavation of the Steamboat Malta is on pause pending the procurement of a display space large enough to house the artifacts. The Steamboat Arabia Museum is currently not large enough to accommodate Hawley's growing collection.
In continuing his search for "buried treasure," David Hawley has plans for an even larger steamboat museum.
"We've got to find a bigger space somewhere, because not only is there the Malta, there are also a couple of other boats that would be amazing to add to this collection,” said Hawley.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Jefferson City, Missouri have both offered to host the growing steamboat collection. Pittsburgh has a fair claim to the Malta; that’s where the boat was built in 1839, before its ill-fated journey carrying goods from St. Louis out west, with an intended stop in Kansas City (a stop it never reached). It sank in August of 1841.
But Kansas City residents are not so quick to give it up.
"It needs to be in Kansas City. It belongs here," said Mertensmeyer. "That steamboat was running up and down the river going past Kansas City. Its history is here, it died here, and it needs to stay here."
Steve Mertensmeyer and David Hawley spoke with KCUR's Central Standard on Thursday. Listen to the full conversation here.
Correction: The Malta is located on the Backes family farm, not the Mertensmeyer family farm as originally reported.