The Filson Historical Society Digital Projects

Shantyboat: Life on the Ohio

“A shantyboat is a scow with a small house on it. Nearly always a homemade job, it is put together with odd scraps of material and pieces of driftwood and wreckage. Yet it is more than a floating homestead: it is an ark which the river bears toward a warmer climate, better fishing grounds, and more plentiful and easier work on shore. At one place after another the hopeful boatman lays over for a spell, until disillusioned, he lets his craft be caught up by the river’s current, to be carried like the driftwood, farther downstream. At last he beaches out for good, somewhere in the south, where his children pass for natives.” 

Harlan Hubbard defined a shantyboat and a shantyboater’s life in this quote from his landmark book on his own river experience, Shantyboat: A River Way of Life. Shantyboaters’ experiences varied from those who floated downriver as Hubbard describes, to those who lived in beached boats with gardens and livestock, squatting on privately or publicly owned lands. Floating and permanent shantyboaters faced dangers on the water and from floods. While some made their livelihood on the river through fishing and transportation, others worked on land in saw mills, coal yards, in other local factories and as domestics in private homes and hotels. Through their living quarters and work, shantyboaters made up one part of Louisville’s community on the river, which also included those there for recreation, transportation, and entertainment. Shantyboats coexisted with showboats, steamboats, and barges, sailboats, rowboats, and towboats, both in Louisville and in other cities up and down the Ohio River.

This digital exhibit pairs the research of Dr. Mark Wetherington, former Director of the Filson Historical Society, with resources from the Filson’s collections. Denigrated as “squatty little half-house, half-boat,” shantyboats provided dwelling places for as many as 50,000 people along American rivers during the Great Depression. From the 1850s until the 1950s, Louisville had a thriving shantyboat community by the outlet of Beargrass Creek along River Road near Butchertown, at an area called “The Point.” In this exhibit, you'll learn about the people and customs of the river and the "underground economy” that thrived on fishing, basket making and harvesting mussel shells for buttons. "Shantyboat Life on the Ohio" is a glimpse into an Ohio River way of life. 


Mark Wetherington, Jim Holmberg, Jennie Cole