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Buried Treasure in a Field of Dreams - February 28, 2020

Kansas corn field (Photo by J. Schafer)

Q: In 1988, a father and his two sons discovered an amazing treasure beneath a northeast Kansas corn field. What was it?

(A) An 800-pound meteorite
(B) A rare duck-billed dinosaur fossil
(C) A strongbox full of gold
(D) The remains of a sunken steamboat


A: (D) The remains of a sunken steamboat (named Arabia)

In 1988, a father and his two sons discovered the remnants of a steamboat buried beneath a corn field in Wyandotte County. How did it wind up there? On September 5, 1856, the steamboat Arabia hit a tree snag and sank in the Missouri River. Since then, the course of the river has changed and is now located about a half-mile from the corn field where the Arabia was rediscovered.

All passengers onboard the Arabia survived the sinking, but an estimated 220 tons of cargo went down to the bottom of the river. As the river moved and changed course over the ensuing years, the Arabia sank further down into the river bottom, becoming buried by tons of silt. The steamboat's cargo, originally destined for frontier towns, became entombed, like a time capsule, for the next 132 years.

In 1987, Bob Hawley and his sons, Greg and David, set out to find the Arabia. They used old maps and a proton magnetometer to figure out the probable location, and finally discovered it, under 45 feet of silt and topsoil. The Hawleys partnered with several friends to form a salvage company. With permission from the landowner, this group of self-described treasure hunters began excavations and continued digging for the next several months. Their original goal was to sell their antique cargo, but the historical importance of this discovery quickly became apparent, so they started plans for a museum instead.

Amazing artifacts from the mid-1800s were discovered, including a wooden crate filled with elegant china and jars of preserved food, some of which remained edible (like the pickles!). Thousands of other items were also discovered, including frontier tools, nails, doorknobs, boots, shoes, glass bottles of perfume and much more. In fact, the Steamboat Arabia Museum contains the largest single collection of pre-Civil War artifacts in the world. When it comes to certain items, this museum contains the world's only known examples. How do you put a price tag on items like this? One man is trying to do just that

Today, you can learn the whole story of the lost and found steamboat, and see all the 1856 artifacts on display, at the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City. The museum is located - appropriately enough - in the River Market area in downtown Kansas City. (Arabia Museum, 400 Grand Blvd., in the River Market)

Discover more Kansas Trivia in KPR's online archive of previous trivia questions.

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