Students and community members visit site of buried Malta steamboat

Monday, March 7, 2016
Arabia Steamboat Museum Co-Owner David Hawley shows pieces of wood recovered from the buried steamboat to students from the Malta Bend School District Friday, March 4. Hawley said the pine wood is believed to have come from the boat's deck while the oak wood is believed to have come from the boat's hull and cargo hold. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

Students of the Malta Bend School District, as well as members of the community, got a perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity Friday, March 4, when they visited the planned excavation site of a buried steamboat.

The steamboat, the Malta, sunk on the Missouri River in August 1841, and the bend in the river where it went down became known as the Malta Bend. Later, settlers formed the town of Malta Bend nearby. Through the years, the river has been rerouted and David Hawley, co-owner of the Arabia Steamboat Museum in Kansas City, located a steamboat that he believes to be the Malta in a cornfield north of Malta Bend. An excavation of the steamer is tentatively scheduled for the winter of 2016-2017.

Students arrived at the site Friday afternoon, where Hawley described the process of hunting for the boat's location, drilling to confirm the size and shape of the boat, and what it will be like to eventually dig the Malta up while preserving the boat and its cargo.

"The kids' parents were excited about it," Malta Bend Superintendent John Angelhow said. "The kids were excited about it. It's just a good community thing."

Malta Bend student Jarron Smith tries on Arabia Steamboat Museum Co-Owner David Hawley's magnetometer and tests the readings near the site where the Malta steamboat is thought to be buried Friday, March 4. (Arron Hustead/ Democrat-News)

Hawley, who had previously recovered 11 other steamboats including the first steamboat to ever sink on the Missouri River, the Missouri Packet, spent nearly three years searching for the Malta on the river's current location and in the nearby fields where the river flowed at the time that it sank. While searching on land, he would pack a large magnetometer, a type of metal detector, and use GPS to keep his trajectory in a straight line as he walked across the field. Hawley laid out a grid pattern over the field in order to search it in blocks, watchful for readings that would indicate the presence of steel and iron. He estimated walking nearly 300 miles total during his search.

Once the boat was located, Hawley and his team set about drilling down to the boat's depth to collect samples and map out the boat's dimensions to confirm its identity. Drilling samples thus far have revealed the presence of pine and oak wood, as well as woven fabric and glass.

"That's been buried for almost 175 years, and it's still in pretty good shape isn't it," Hawley asked the students as he displayed wood samples collected from the boat, noting that despite being waterlogged, the wood did not rot because or a lack of oxygen underground. "... When there's no air, bacteria won't grow. Things don't decay. Things don't rot. It could very well be when we get down to this boat, if there's food on that boat, the food will still be there. If there's barrels of butter, it'll still smell good."

Students from the Malta Bend School District examine a hole drilled to make contact with a buried steamboat thought to be the Malta in a cornfield north of Malta Bend Friday, March 4. (Arron Hustead/Democrat-News)

The boat currently resides between 37 and 52 feet beneath the surface. Hawley said a lot of water rests approximately 10 feet beneath the surface. Before a dig can occur to excavate the boat, that water would need to be removed from the path of the dig. This will be achieved by digging wells all around the boat and pumping out the water.

"If we pump faster than the water wants to come in, the water table will drop in this area," Hawley said. "It'll drop below the boat, and when it goes down there, that's when we'll start digging."

Another visit to the site during the excavation would likely not be possible due to safety and liability concerns. However, interested parties will be able to monitor the progress of the excavation as the museum plans to set up a publicly accessible live video feed during the course of recovering and preserving the Malta and the artifacts it contains.

Contact Arron Hustead at ahustead@marshallnews.com

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