I have never hidden my secret love for houseboats. I am not necessarily talking about yachts or catamarans or even pontoons either. I am more or less talking about a house….that floats. There is something so magical about them. Perhaps it is a held over fascination with Tom Sawyer tales from the Mississippi. I don’t know. But it cannot be denied that shanty boats are no less tiny houses than anything else. Imagine then my recent excitement when learning a bit more about the history of shanty boats and river people, in general.
A shantyboat is a small crude houseboat (also called a flatboat, broadhorn, barge, scow, or ark). They are literally houses set atop and affixed to some sort of floating vessel. Fact is, there is a forgotten history in America of people living in homemade shantyboats because of their cost (next to free), ability to be mobile, proximity to employment both onshore and off, and feasibility for displaced people in rural areas and workers in urban areas.
From about 1890 until the post-Depression years, itinerant workers (and their families) lives in shantyboats along the canals and river of industrial metro areas.
Working-class people living on the water is tied to economic conditions as well as the boom and bust cycles of capitalism. In the fallout from the U.S. economic collapse in 1893 (also known as the Panic of 1893 – a national economic crisis set off by the collapse of two of the country’s largest employers, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the National Cordage Company), thousands of families left their homes in the upper Mississippi Valley in hand built shantyboats to look for work along the more industrialized lower Mississippi River and Ohio River Valleys. Then again, in the 1930s, displaced and jobless people took to the waters, to live or to travel to look for work.
During the counter-culture decades of the 1960s and 70s, a water-based version of the Back To The Land movement blossomed in leftover houseboat communities most specifically in the Pacific Northwest. People looked to the relative freedom of rivers, lakes, and seas, especially in floating communities in Sausalito, California, Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.
Unfortunately shantyboats are all but gone today, along with the wild and wooly riverbank crop-up communities, the river-based industry, and towns adjacent to the river. This can largely be seen along the banks of the Mississippi and the Elk River in West Virginia. In addition, class-based conflicts between these houseboat communities and land-based home owners decimated the remaining communities. Thankfully the lifestyle is experiencing a bit of a Renaissance floating down the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Missouri and other rivers. Take for example Wes Modes, a Santa Cruz artist who started in 2015 on a series of epic river voyages (he is currently traveling California’s Sacramento River running through the Central Valley) on his Secret History of American River People tour to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river.
It is impossible to say what the future of shantyboats is. However, if tiny houses on wheels are to be of any indication, it is unlikely they will gain governmental support and will stay largely unregulated and “illegal.” Shantyboats represent a complex mix of desperation and freedom and in today’s world would touch on housing stigma rather than a lack of complexity. It is hard to fit a 60″ plasma screen inside 110 sq.ft. and perhaps even harder to rent from the Redbox when floating down a river!
What do you think about shantyboats? Do you find them historically fascinating? Would you build and live aboard one?