The Filson Historical Society Digital Projects

Shantyboaters on The Point

Roustabout Songs: A Collection of Ohio River Valley Songs

“The shanty-boat man forms a study of no little interest ... on account of [the] broader nature of his daily life and the consequent diversity of his experience. This is due to his amphibious existence; like his habitation he is half terrestrial, half aquatic, feeling equally in place upon both land and water, and consequently combining the qualities or land man and sailor, besides being endowed, by the nomadic nature of his existence, with all the shrewdness and ingenuity of the tramp.” Louisville Courier-Journal, April 11, 1897 

In Louisville, and elsewhere on the Ohio River, there were two kinds of shantyboaters: permanents and travelers. While travelers were only passing through, permanent shantyboaters stayed in one place for months at a time, if not years. By 1900, Louisville’s permanent shantyboaters were about half adult males and half adult women and children under fifteen – so rather than being a community of transients or vagrants, shantyboat Louisville was a neighborhood filled with families. The shantyboat neighborhood stretched along the Ohio River from around First Street north to the Beargrass Creek cutoff at the end of Towhead Island. 

A portion of the Kentucky shore across from Towhead Island was called “The Point” after the 1850s when the natural course of Beargrass Creek was rerouted to expand the steamboat wharf. The creek’s original outlet into the Ohio was located between Third and Fourth Streets, near the current docking point of the Belle of Louisville. The creek’s original path had made a long peninsula of land between the creek and the river, the first area known as “The Point. The rerouting moved “The Point” nearly a mile and a half upriver to the new spot where the creek emptied into the Ohio. The former bed of Beargrass, haphazardly filled in over the years, formed the southern boundary of Shantyboat Louisville.  

When the river rose, shantyboats rose with it and were often stranded on land when the floodwaters receded. Many times, the families would choose to stay in their beached shantyboat, squatting on public and private land, staking out homesteads with fences, gardens, pig pens, and outhouses. Thus, the shantyboat neighborhood extended inland for several blocks where schools, churches, bakers, and saloons provided goods and services to shantyboat families. One specific section of The Point was known as “Happy Hollow” according to a June 23, 1889 article in the Louisville Courier-Journal. This basin-shaped area between Jackson and Hancock Streets and the Short Line and Riverside railroads was described as one of the roughest parts of The Point, which ironically also housed its two largest churches. Brady’s Church held services for the neighborhood’s African American community nightly, beginning at 8PM and often running until 2AM. The services were presided over by Elder Vance and sister Harriet Clark, the lay preacher. The building began as a beached coal barge, with the community using odds and ends to erect walls and a roof, mainly held down with rocks.  

After the floods of 1937 and 1945, city officials condemned The Point, deeming it unsafe for residential use. Eventually, Thruston Park was built over a portion of the area, along with the Louisville Boat Harbor and a marina.

The Boat Harbor at Tow Head Island, Louisville, Ky, 1938