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Shanty Boats On The Ohio: Louisville's Lost Neighborhood

Courtesy Filson Historical Society

George Bush was a multitasker.

He owned a shanty boat on the east end of Louisville's Towhead Island in the early 1900's. For part of the year, Bush worked at a factory and for the remainder of the year, he’d shell mussels. Nearby factories would buy the shells and turn them into pearl buttons.

Bush was atypical for two reasons: he was an African-American living in Louisville’s mostly White shanty boat community, and because of the length of time he lived in the area -- 18-20 years. In that stretch of time, most boat dwellers eventually drifted to other cities for work.

Shanty boats were a popular form of housing in the region from the 1850's to the 1950’s. During that time, Bush was one of 50,000 people who lived on a shanty boat and called the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers home.

“The actual peak time -- they were beginning to trail off in the Post World War II period -- was the Great Depression,” said Mark Wetherington, senior research fellow at the Filson Historical Society. Wetherington recently led a talk at the Filson about shanty boats and what he calls "Louisville’s lost neighborhood."

For $30-40, you could buy yourself a shanty boat. These boats were similar in design to shotgun houses. If you wanted a fancy one, it could cost you about $200. And it wasn’t just fishermen who lived on shanty boats. Other workers -- servants, stone masons, and basket makers -- wanted in on them, too.

“Most of them had two rooms, some had three,” Wetherington said. 

It was a better deal than living in one room with several other families in Louisville’s notorious tenement houses. The city's population doubled between the years 1870 and 1910 and housing couldn’t keep up. For $5 a month you could get a room in a tenement house. Shanty boats, however, offered more space.

Shanty boat communities were stereotyped as being full of shiftless men who enjoyed a drink too often. But about half of Louisville’s shanty boat community were women and children, said Wetherington. Women had jobs as fishers, too. They, along with men, also made fishing nets and baskets for a living. Children were merchants and sold those products in the streets.

Wetherington said the shanty boat community had an underground economy where many bartered for what they needed -- including a new boat. This was helpful for growing families that had outsized their one-bedroom homes.

By the 1950’s and 60’s, the shanty boat community disappeared. Several circumstances led to the demise including multiple floods -- starting with the 1937 flood -- and pollution of the Ohio River.

“The flood of ‘37 and another flood in the 40’s convinced people in Louisville that they really needed to shut this area down because it was uninhabitable,” said Wetherington.

The 85 acres of Louisville's Waterfront Park today consists of fountains, greenery, and art for residents looking for respite from the city. But Wetherington wants Louisvillians to remember this significant part of the city’s history.

“The waterfront is where Louisville started," he said. "We’ve gone back to it. We’ve re-embraced it with the waterfront redevelopment."

Furthermore, Wetherigton said issues present during the time of shanty boat communities still persist today.

“Some of that deals with public health, some of that deals with the quality of housing, some of it deals with our air quality,” he said.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.

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