Super Shantys And Boats Of The River People - Tiny House Blog
August 30, 2017

Super Shantys And Boats Of The River People

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.

Secret History of American River People Lyrical Trailer from Wes Modes on Vimeo.


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? 

By Andrew M. Odom for the [Tiny House Blog]

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Georgia - September 4, 2017 Reply

There are lots of “river dwellers” in the Willamette river in Portland. It’s not quite legal, but the city tolerates them.

Joy - September 13, 2017 Reply

My love for shantyboats began after reading the book Shantyboat by Harlan Hubbard (written in 1953; copyright 1977 by The University Press of Kentucky, ISBN: 0-8131-1359-8, Library of Congress Catalog Number: 77-73701.) It’s a very detailed account of how Harlan and his wife, Anna, built their shantyboat on the shore of the Ohio River at Brent, KY, took it down the Ohio to New Orleans and into the bayou country of LA. After the journey that took 7 years, they sold the boat and went back to the land. Times have changed drastically since 1944, but dreams never change! I believe the book is out of print, but check old book sellers. It’s a gem.

scott h - September 13, 2017 Reply

hey there,
tiny houses that float …. having grown up in S. La., there was a strong community living upon the water on such a structure. one woman and man, Mr. and Mrs. Barris, were my babysitters! what a treat it was to dangle my feet off the edges, catch minnows and such. they also made a living gathering and drying moss. this was used to stuff pillows and mattresses! they also would shrimp, fish and catch crawfish and put them up for sale.

glorious mornings and early afternoons were spent on the shady side of the “camp boat”. NO alligators or snakes would venture close to the camp! everything could and would be eaten. they simply would not show themselves, amazing what gets thru to their tiny brains! ha.

Wes has done a good job of documenting river and shanty life.

as always thoroughly enjoying your writing and perspectives.

blessings to you and yours.

Sandra T - September 21, 2017 Reply

I love the ideas of houseboats, shanty boats, and tiny houses. They have as much right to exist as the megamansions down the street from me. The world has certainly become meaner: “We don’t want THAT here”!! Well, why not? Who says everyone can’t live how they want? I’d rather have a 400sft house inhabited by friendly people next door, than a 20,000sft that spies on the neighbors and complains to “the authorities”. If your abode is clean and neat, it should be allowed. It’s not up to me to live your life, or for anyone else to try to live mine. What happened to live & let live?
I will order that Shantyboat book. Sounds interesting.

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