Shantyboat life

After the devastating Panic of 1893, thousands of abruptly unemployed and now homeless industrial workers, in river towns from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, found that they could cobble together a livable house on top of an abandoned commercial barge down on the waterfront, or build a shantyboat from scratch from the broad selection of cast-off timbers and driftwood lining virtually every mile of riverbank. Each year, hundreds of shanytboat families imply cast off from Memphis or Cincinnati and spent the warm months drifting down river, camping on remote islands, planting gardens or harvesting wild berries… During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration estimated that as many as fifty thousand Americans lived on shantyboats.

A version of this lifestyle on the river in Knoxville described in Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree.

Rinker Buck manages to get his shantyboat from Elizabeth, Pennsylvania on the Ohio River all the way to New Orleans. He’s warned that he’s going to die, but in fact he has a mostly peaceful cruise. One problem he notes is that long stretches of the Mississippi are fuel deserts: there are no marinas or places to gas up your boat. He attributes this to a combination of factors, including a decline in recreational boating post the 2008 recession, and the record flooding of 2011.

He’s warned that the Coast Guard will remove his boat if he gets caught on a sandbar and has to leave it for awhile, but after some experience he scoffs at that. No one is bothering to clean up the river or remove obstacles to navigation, gas cans float by, it’s full of trash, old refrigerators, sunken cars, etc.

The Ohio and the Mississippi are nothing but Superfund sites with water running through them.

Really good chapter about Natchez, MS and the new national park project there to commemorate the Forks In the Road slave market. Bleak!

I’m giving this book away if anyone wants it!


2 Comments on “Shantyboat life”

  1. tgru says:

    I’ll pay for postage if you haven’t found a home for it yet, sounds interesting!


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