The Filson Historical Society Digital Projects

Making a Living on the River

Unloading Sand Scows , ca. 1920s

Drifting shantyboaters were sometimes merchants or businessmen who sold goods along the river; first trading their wares, then selling their boats in Cairo, Illinois, and finally catching a steamboat upriver to “home.” Travelers might also move with work, following seasonal employment down and upriver as the year progressed. Some travelers eschewed the city, tying up north and south of Louisville's wharf, preferring to trade with smaller communities and individuals. For this group, autumn was shantyboat time in Louisville – according to custom, it was time to cast off and drift south whenever five leaves floated by touching each other. In October, migratory shantyboaters gathered to make last minute preparations, take on supplies, and renew acquaintances before drifting south for the winter. Louisville's waterfront was a major gathering place for the Upper Ohio’s shantyboats.  

Louisville was also home to more permanent boatersMany tied up east, or upriver, of the Big Four Bridge behind Towhead Island where they were safe from the wakes of steamboats and tows. Some lived in boats beached on the shore. They traded fish to farmers in exchange for milk, meat, and eggs. By 1900, about half of Louisville’s permanent shantyboaters were fishermen, who supplemented a short working season of 3-4 months with skiff rentals and part time jobs on tows and steamboats. Other residents of the shantyboat neighborhood fished for mussels and sold their shells to pearl button factories. Downstream, work was in an industrial setting – sawmills, iron foundries, and box factories – and in domestic service as hired help in hotels and private homes. 

Both in Louisville and along the Ohio, shantyboaters were only a part of the community who made a living on the river. Along with the industries operating along the river, steamboats, towboats, barges, and ferries provided employment to those who sailed them, along with those who stocked them - the roustabouts loading and unloading on the Louisville wharf. The transportation economy – for both goods and people - was, and continues to be, an important employer along the river.

The Valley View Ferry Julia, Kentucky River, 1959

Another source of work came from the showboats and amusement companies operating on the Ohio. Showboats were popular entertainment boats on the rivers of the United States from the 1830s through the late 1950s. These boats could be as simple as shantyboats or as elaborate as floating theaters. While they preferred to stop at small towns where they could be the main point of entertainment, some showboats did stop at Louisville’s municipal wharf, and more went to Jeffersonville and New Albany, Indiana. The showboat Majestic, built in the early 1920s, made frequent stops in Louisville in the 1950s and 1960s, offering a variety of performances. The city of Cincinnati purchased the boat in the late 1960s, refurbished it, and various production companies continued to offer entertainment on the boat, docked at Cincinnati’s public landing for more than fifty yearsIt is the last original floating theater in the country and a National Historic Landmark. Most of the showboats could not survive competition from other forms of mass culture such as television or movie theaters and ended their runs in the mid twentieth century.

French’s New Sensation Floating Theatre, 1925