Museum closes in on historic Malta Bend steamboat

Wednesday, March 2, 2016
Markers in the Malta Bend cornfield of Jim Backes indicate where Arabia Steamboat Museum co-owner David Hawley and his team have drilled in search of the steamboat Malta, which sank on the Missouri River in 1841, an for which the town of Malta Bend is named. White flags indicate a miss while yellow, orange and pink flags indicate the drill struck a steamboat buried between 37 and 52 feet beneath the surface. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

The search for a steamboat that sank on the Missouri River 175 years ago has resulted in what looks like an attempt to play Battleship in a Malta Bend cornfield.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum believes it has located the steamboat Malta, which sank in 1841, and for which the town of Malta Bend takes its name. After a nearly three-year-long search for the Malta, the museum, located in Kansas City, believes that it has at last located its target buried beneath the farm of Jim Backes.

"In that two-and-a-half to three year search, I bet I've walked 300 miles," museum co-owner David Hawley said of his one-man quest through fields along the river with a metal detector.

Backes' family has owned the property where the steamer was found since 1940, and part of the farm includes ground where the Missouri formerly ran before it was rerouted. In the field, near the river's current location, several red, pink, orange and white flags can be seen sticking up out of the soil to mark locations where drilling has occurred in an attempt to gauge the dimensions of the steamer and confirm that it is the Malta. Like a large-scale Battleship game board, white flags mark where the drill has missed the boat and the yellow, orange and pink flags mark a hit. At the center of it all, a green bucket sits atop a pole, marking the point where initial drilling first struck the boat.

Hawley said he plans to continue drilling at the site in coming weeks, as weather permits, to determine the steamboat's heading, which along with the measurements could definitively confirm the steamboat's identity. The Malta measured 140 feet long and 22 feet wide and could hold up to 115 tons of freight.

Drilling at Backes' farm conducted Feb. 27 and 28 further confirmed the presence of the steamboat, buried 37 feet beneath the ground. If it is the Malta, Hawley estimated that parts of the steamboat could be buried as deep as 52 feet beneath the surface. Testing of the drill samples revealed the presence of vivid red and black woven fabric, and wood the museum believes came from boat's deck and paddle wheel.

An excavation of the Malta could provide new insight into the fur trade of the 1840s as the steamer was ascending the river when it sank, indicating that it was likely full of trading supplies destined for the Indian Territories. Thus, an excavation could enlighten historians as to the types of supplies that were sent westward for trade, rather than supplies for settlers or buffalo hides returning from the territories.

"I think you always add more to the history books when you find something like this and look at it first hand," Hawley said.

The Malta continues to be featured prominently at Malta Bend, appearing on the sign at city hall and on a large mural along U.S. Highway 65 at the town's center. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

The majority of Malta Bend's residents are undoubtedly aware of the town's lineage as the Malta continues to be featured prominently in the town. It appears on the town hall sign as well as on a large mural facing U.S. Highway 65 as it passes through the town center.

"That's the only town that I'm aware of that's named for a steamboat that sank nearby," Hawley said.

When it reached the bend that would become its home for the past 175 years, the Malta struck a tree snag, tearing out the entire bottom of the boat and leading to its rapid demise. According to a press release from the museum, it was reported that "probably no boat ever went to the bottom so quickly on the river." While the wreck did not completely submerge and all of the passengers were rescued, the boat and its cargo were unsalvageable. Another steamboat, the John Golong, also went down in the area five years after the Malta wreck.

Rumor has it that the elderly of the previous generation claimed to have been able to see the steamer's stacks sticking up from either the ground or the river in their earlier years. Backes estimated that if true, anybody currently old enough to recall that sight would likely have to be 120-years-old or more. He said the steamer seems to currently be the talk of the town.

The Malta continues to be featured prominently at Malta Bend, appearing on the sign at city hall and on a large mural along U.S. Highway 65 at the town's center. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

"Everybody you talk to, 'Oh, that's going to be something else,' you know," Backes said.

Following confirmation of the Malta and its cargo, the next steps for the museum would involve obtaining permits for the excavation, which Hawley said would ideally take place in the winter of 2016-17. He said the winter months were ideal for the preservation of the artifacts because they would be waterlogged from the steamer's many years at the bottom of the river and the evaporation of that water could cause cracks and crumbling to occur if the artifacts didn't remain frozen. Hawley said the goal for an excavation of the Malta would be to display it alongside the Arabia, another recovered steamboat the museum has been preserving for the past 25 years.

While not having any personal connection to the Malta, Backes was born and raised in Malta Bend and said he remains interested in the boat's history and what the museum will find after witnessing the museum's attempts to map out the full extent of the steamer. He said he currently plans to plant all around the proposed dig site in the spring, leaving the approximately 140 foot by 22 foot site untouched.

B-5? Fingers crossed for a hit.

Contact Arron Hustead at ahustead@marshallnews.com

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