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From Mountainside to Riverside: Appalachia’s Boat Dwellers

A family sits on the porch of their houseboat on the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1938. (photo by Wolcott, Marion Post – Library of Congress)

By Phillip J. Obermiller and Thomas E. Wagner

Appalachia has always been a place set apart by mountains and stitched together by rivers. Before there were highways, before there were railroads, even before the Wilderness Road, the Saluda Trail, or Zane’s Trace, there were rivers.

North America has nearly as many navigable rivers as the rest of the world combined. According to the Army Corps of Engineers there are 12,000 miles of navigable waterways in the United States, and about a quarter of them (2,800 mi.) are in the Ohio River Basin. Rivers such as the Ohio, Tennessee, Cumberland, Monongahela, Allegheny, Kanawha, and the Big Sandy wash the shores of Appalachia.

Smaller streams have carved their way into the topographical and historical contours of the regional landscape as well: the Clinch, the Chattooga, the Kanawha, the Kentucky, and the Little Sandy to name a few. The importance of smaller tributaries in the social and economic terrain of Appalachia can be seen in the many “forks,” “branches,” “licks,” “runs,” “creeks” and “springs” that make up many of the region’s place names.

Moving waters and the boats that ply them are not the central images one associates with Appalachia, yet their contributions to the region’s history are remarkable. People paddling canoes, then guiding rafts and flatboats and later piloting steamboats and tugboats created the riverside encampments and villages that would become small river towns like Burnside, Kentucky, or metropolises like Knoxville, Tennessee. For years boats were a principal means of commerce and transportation into and out of the region, as well as a means of communication with the rest of the country. Because of the constant movement of goods, people, and news up and down the region’s streams, Appalachia was never as completely isolated as it has been seen in the popular imagination.

Boats also affected local economies. Shallow-draft vessels plying the upper reaches of the region’s rivers had relatively small capacities; it was economically more efficient for farmers to ship their corn to market in small kegs as distilled whiskey than to send their crop as bulk freight. The unfortunate Appalachian “moonshiner” stereotype has its roots, at least in part, in the simple economic realities of river transportation.

In addition to building and operating the boats that navigated their rivers, many Appalachians served in the blue-water Navy during both World Wars. Working in a dark, dust-filled coal bunkers on Liberty ships during WWII reminded many of their work as coal miners.

Appalachians also crewed the tows plying the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, and Tombigbee waterways.

A tow of empty barges is seen on the Ohio River in 1943. (Arthur S. Siegel – Library of Congress)

Workers from West Virginia and Appalachian Ohio in particular found work on the ore carriers of the Great Lakes.

Mountaineers have always used boats to hunt and fish, but the construction of dams and locks by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Army Corps of Engineers fundamentally changed the region’s use of its freshwater resources. Dams created lakes and river channels deep enough to sustain increased commercial navigation and to stimulate recreational boating. The jobs created by constructing the dams, operating the locks, building and servicing pleasure boats, and the concomitant growth of the tourism industry were bought at a dear price by the residents of some Appalachian valleys. After the destruction or relocation of entire towns located in the valleys behind the new dams, Appalachia’s rivers not only carried migrants, they caused migration.

The early 20th century added new dimension to the region’s riparian history. Some families found refuge on rivers and lakes after being evicted from their farms and towns by TVA dams, by the creation of the Smoky Mountain National Park, by the Depression, by the floods of 1937 in which thousands of people were left homeless, and later by the construction of the Oak Ridge nuclear facility. Deprived of their home places, they built houseboats where no one could displace them from the water under their homes.

Not all houseboaters were forced onto the rivers. Some lived on the water by birth into a boating family or by inclination, attracted by the independent and self-sufficient lifestyle. Yet many were coerced, evidenced by the dramatic rise in houseboaters during the Depression. In a 1931 Saturday Evening Post article, Raymond Spears wrote: “There probably are 50,000 river people…drifters on the Mississippi and other major streams.” This number is not unreasonable. In 1939 a more scientific estimate was made in a study by Ernest Hiller for the federal Works Progress Administration. Based on a sample of 683 households that he interviewed living on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, he projected the “Houseboat and River-Bottom People” on those two rivers alone constituted between 12,000 and 15,000 households. In the 1920s most houseboats were tied up in Kentucky, and their numbers only grew during the Depression.

A deserted houseboat, possibly in Ohio, between 1905 and 1920. (Library of Congress)

Aboard their vessels house boaters raised their families, worked on shore where they could, and fished to supplement their diets and budgets. Ever resourceful, boat people also engaged in pearling (gathering mussels which were sold to pearl button factories), drifting (salvaging wood and other items found floating in the rivers), foraging (for fruits, berries, roots, and herbs ashore), building boats, and making fishing gear. Traditional activities such as trading, gardening, woodcarving, quilting, basket weaving, hunting, trapping, and making willow furniture also filled their days.

Despite their industriousness and self-reliant occupations, these hard-working people were often disdained as “river rats,” living in so-called “shanty boats,” the social equivalent of urban slums. Landowners thought of their frequently flooded riverbanks as substandard land, and the houseboaters who tied up on them were considered equally marginal. “Shanty boaters” forced by landowners to move on simply made their way up or down river, using a flatboat to tow their homes to a new location.

In terms of morphology, the houseboats almost invariably had an open-air deck with a roof, similar to a log cabin porch; sometimes an outhouse emptying directly into the river was built off the corner of the deck. Construction materials varied widely including scraps of canvas, pieces of driftwood, wood “scabs” from sawmills, and wreckage. “Timber rises” were a boon: they delivered planed wood to scavengers from flooded sawmills located along the river banks.

 Ore at L.S. & M.S. [Lake Shore and Michigan Southern] Ry. docks, Ashtabula, Ohio (Detroit Publishing Co. – Library of Congress)

Some riverside encampments grew into floating villages with their own social norms and folklore, including songs, jokes, ballads of intrepid boatmen, and tales of monster fish. These communities, however, were far from idyllic. Some houseboaters lived at the edge of the law, paid no taxes, and in some instances did not send their children to school. Although most houseboaters were industrious and honorable, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish between a nomadic, foraging lifestyle and outright thievery. For instance, skill and materials were needed to make nets, and many full-time fishermen set out of a morning only to find both their nets and their catch had been stolen overnight. Farmers on shore would sometimes find that their fruit or vegetable crops had been harvested for them.

Today the figurative “descendants” of shanty boaters still populate lakes and rivers throughout the region. Some houseboats are fairly modest…while others are more pretentious: The average cost of a luxury houseboat can range between $400,000 and $800,000. But the struggles of Appalachian boat people, whatever their social class, have not ended.

Most house boats are in good condition on Boone Lake, in Gray, Tennessee, despite having been grounded for more than 6 years during a project to repair erosion around Boone Dam, which controls the lake levels. (Photograph by Appalachian Places staff)

In May of 2016 the TVA reneged on a 1978 agreement to grandfather all existing houseboats into a compact guaranteeing them rights to tie up on TVA-controlled lakes and rivers. The TVA announced that all existing houseboats had to be removed from the waterways within thirty years and no new houseboats would be approved. At the end of his second term, President Obama signed a bill to provide relief to the citizens of Flint, Michigan, who were faced with a serious drinking-water crisis. Senators and representatives from Kentucky and Tennessee added language to the legislation providing a reprieve from the TVA ultimatum. Even so, the regulatory debate continues.

Just as people throughout the world have looked to rivers for their homes and livelihood, Appalachians have as well. The clash between Federal regulations and the desire to live in houseboats on Appalachian waterways is a story that is still being written. How the story will end is still in question.

Phillip J. Obermiller is a senior visiting scholar in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati and a fellow at the University of Kentucky’s Appalachian Center.

Thomas E. Wagner is a university professor emeritus in the School of Planning at the University of Cincinnati.

For further reading see R.E. Banta's The Ohio or Harlan Hubbard's Shantyboat: A River Way of Life.


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