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Hunting for the Long-Lost Steamboat Malta

Tony Peng

It all started for David Hawley when he was at a customer’s house working on an air conditioner. He spotted some unusual things hanging in the back wall of one room: old river maps and photographs of steamboats.

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He just couldn’t look away, he said.

When he told his family about it, they encouraged him to go even further.

"They said, 'Dave, if you find a boat, we will go help you dig it.'" David Hawley said.

From that life-changing moment on, the family searched for boats, unearthed them, and preserved them. For almost 30 years, they did all of this together as a family.

“I don’t know why we all like to be together, many families split and go different directions,” said Flo Hawley, mother of David Hawley.

They initially thought they would sell everything they dug up and make money from selling the artifacts, Hawley said.

Credit Tony Peng / KBIA
Locks are among the many items the Hawley family discovered in a buried ship near Kansas City, Mo. called the Arabia. The family opened a museum to display the ship's contents rather than sell the centuries-old material.

“They told all the wives they were going to find gold, and we were going to build a big house on top of the hill, and live happily ever after,” Flo Hawley said.

Instead of gold, they started to find things that of greater historical value: bottles full of pickles, more than three million India trade beads, over 4,000 boots and shoes. They realized that they found something that could fill in some of Missouri's history, David Hawley said.

“That kind of changed our mind from sale to a museum,” said Bob Hawley, father of David Hawley.

But they couldn’t afford to have a museum big enough to store and share that 200 tons of treasures built for them — the family was already in debt after spending $780,000 excavating the Arabia. So, they built one on their own, the Arabia Steamboat Museum.

“Bob always told the kids, if you can draw it, you can build it,” Flo Hawley said.

Now David Hawley walks back and forth on a farm field outside in the mid-Missouri town of Malta Bend. This time he is trying to find the centuries old steamboat, the Malta.

Credit Tony Peng / KBIA
David Hawley hoists a magnetometer over his shoulder as he walks the field. He takes a measurement when he reaches a new section of the field, which will later go into the computer and create a map. Hawley is searching for the Malta, a steamboat from centuries ago that he believes is buried near Malta, Mo.

Both the parents are over 80 years old, and they still enjoy working in the museum. Flo Hawley helps in the museum’s gift shop, while Bob Hawley gives speech to tour groups in the museum’s theater. He said he wishes he could join his son in digging up the Malta, just like they did with the Arabia.

“If we could go back and do it all again, and if we had that choice, I am sure that everybody would say: ‘let’s go for it,’” David Hawley said.

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