Unearthing An Urban Legend

The outline of steamboat Malta, discovered in a Missouri corn field. ( Photo Credit: David Hawley, via KCUR 89.3 )

Photo Credit: David Hawley, via KCUR 89.3

In 2016, corn and soybean farmer Jim Backes learned he held the keys to unearthing a legend that had haunted his town since its founding. The small town of Malta Bend, Missouri was named for something of folklore, steamboat Malta.

The 250-person town was first platted in 1867. Rumor had it, the steamboat was buried beneath the soil near the town, waiting to be discovered and for the treasures inside to be revealed.

“We had people in the past who said they wanted to look for it and it never developed,” 70-year-old Backes says. “We’d heard there were boats under the dirt, but no one really knew where. David Hawley, the same guy who found steamboat Arabia, walked 300 miles on our farm trying to locate it.”

Hawley had the tools to get the job done, he told KMBC News. He used a large drill to go 37’ below ground before finally hitting something—something that would confirm the existence of Malta Bend’s namesake. When Hawley pulled up a core sample it revealed 150 gold buttons, fabric, ceramics and an iron hook.

“It’s the [right] boat and it’s full of stuff,” Hawley said to KMBC News.

After finding the boat, Hawley used a magnetometer and took soil core samples to mark off the precise location of the 150’X18’ steamboat. Backes still grows corn in the field but avoids the marked off the location of Malta to avoid planting over the relic.

It was a particularly tricky find because there’s not one, but two boats buried in this area. However, steamboat Malta is the holy grail because unlike the other barge ship, it contained precious cargo from days of old.

“It was an urban legend until four years ago,” Backes explained. A legend the second-generation farmer never imagined would land in that particular 180-acre field.

Backes’ father bought that field in the early 1950s and before it was a lush, productive cornfield, it was covered in timber. Tree by tree, Backes’ father, and even 8-year-old Jim Backes, cleared the field so it could produce the grain the family counted on to provide income.

Almost 70 years later that same field has brought numerous tourists, reporters and TV crews, itching to see what the steamboat contains. It’ll take $3 million dollars to dig the steamboat. Right now, location for the Malta’s museum is not yet determined.

Consider this urban legend, confirmed.