Rollin’ on the River: Pittsburgh Shanty Boat Life
This article by Sue Morris discusses shanty boat living in Pittsburgh, a topic close to my mom’s heart, who lived on several in the 1960s on the Allegheny River.
Here are some excerpts:
there were plenty of other Pittsburghers who called the rivers home year-round, for whom living on the water was a matter of necessity, not trendiness. No $10,000 water crafts for those folks: they lived in what Pittsburghers of the day called “shanty boats” or “jo-boats”.
While houseboating life might seem the stuff of a Twain novel set on the Mississippi, Pittsburgh’s three rivers were home to countless shanty boats which captured authorial imaginations. A children’s adventure book written in 1891, The Jo-Boat Boys, described an Irish family making do in their floating home on the Mon, situated between the Smithfield and Point bridges:
Maybe you never happened to see a house from the back window of which you could go fishing, or where the bucket had only to be dropped down from the porch and water hauled up to wash or scrub with, and where the front yard never needed sweeping, and no expense was needed for a cellar-wall….Mrs. Brigid Muldooney washes for a living….She tried renting for a while, but the rent had a provoking way of coming due at the beginning of each month, whether there was anything in the treasury to pay it with or not; so she concluded to save money and the wear and tear on a washtub and clothesline to move into a shanty-boat. She and the boys found one in a cove in the river below the island, that had been upset and carried away with the driftwood. It was high and dry, and a little nailing and caulking soon made it good as new, and the boys towed it back from its suburban site to more citified surroundings and tied it up…The bottom of the boat was just a small flat or scow, on top of which had been built a flat-roofed shanty. There was one room, with a porch, “stem” and “stern.” In this six-by-nine room the Muldooney family of five crowded….
|Houseboat along Ohio River in Rochester, PA, 1940
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Described thusly in a newspaper article in 1923: “…many of Pittsburgh’s houseboat residents are reputable folk, including veteran rivermen with a deep affection for the river.”
Not every shanty boater was a fine upstanding citizen, however. Others lived like this:
…a haphazard existence by utilizing other people’s property in building houseboats to sell. Lumber piles and unguarded scrap piles are their hunting ground, and from these they might carry away boards, pieces of lead, rope, or anything that might come in handy in the construction of a houseboat. Sometimes these questionable shipwrights might turn out two or three houseboats in a summer….selling them for whatever they can get.
Haphazard existences outnumbered reputable folk in literature of the day, which romanticized shanty boat life as exotic and outside prevailing social norms. A 1911 short story published in Collier’s weekly magazine placed its bank-embezzling protagonist on the lam on a jo-boat acquired in Pittsburgh. This excerpt paints a vivid picture of life along Pittsburgh’s shanty boat shores:
Illustration from “Nemesis in Good Humor”
Collier’s, Vol. 48, 1911
Copron Colphete entered Pittsburgh and emerged on the far side, a little sooty, but jaunty and smiling… At the Monongahela wharf, he upended the suit case…took out a second-hand briar wood, tucked some long-cut into it, and began to smoke.
The river looked good. It was boiling under an unexpected September rise. On the far side, a coal fleet was nudging out into the current, bound for New Orleans. Some dirty little gasoline launches were tearing up the glassy surface, and there was a pile driver being nosed upstream. Downstream a ways were some very beautiful gasoline launches moored in artificial harbor by a floating clubhouse, and upstream were some little house-boats, but he did not call them house-boats. He knew what they were in fact; they were shanty boats.
Shanty boats! It is a magic term. Of ten thousand absconding bank cashiers, only one had ever dreamed of shanty boats — and that one now gazed fondly at the consummation of his dreams. There they were, some reddish brown, some blackish white, some bluish gray, and some just plain tar-paper shacks on driftwood scows… With fond gaze he viewed the Pittsburgh shanty boat town, which no humorous, poetic absconding bank cashier had ever seen before.
The relationship between the cities of Allegheny and Pittsburgh and their floating residents was always uneasy, with periodic eviction decrees issued by the city fathers. Some of the region’s jo-boat dwellers moored their structures permanently on stilts above the water, while others tied to trees along the shore or docks if such existed. Either way, regardless of their mobility, most of the houseboat population lived tax-free.
In February 1890, Allegheny Mayor Richard Turner Pearson voiced support for proposed legislation restricting unlicensed houseboats. This drew rebukes from his river constituents, given voice by an intrepid Daily Post reporter who visited jo-boats docked along “the Smoky Island river town district” seeking some man-on-the-river reactions. One jo-boater took the moral high ground against what he described as unreasonable persecution by the Mayor:
I do not believe the city limits extend to the middle of the river. The United States government has jurisdiction to the low water mark, and I don’t believe the mayor can remove the law-abiding inhabitants of the jo-boats who pay their taxes and live honestly. There are doubtless some along-shore people who are dishonest, yet for that reason alone Mayor Pearson has no right to call the jo-boats “schools of vice” and try to root out the innocent with the guilty. When a thief is caught on his resident street, the chief executive of Allegheny doesn’t call it the home of wickedness. This movement of his is a bid for notoriety. If some of us people chose to take a little boodle to the right persons I don’t think we would be molested. But I will never do that. I will wander around the country homeless before I bribe anyone for the privilege of having a home.
Another Smoky Island jo-boater was less eloquent but every bit as defiant in the face of potential eviction: ” Don’t give up the ship is our motto….and we will live up to it. We are very willing to part with the rascals among us, but we won’t yield our homes and riversides without a struggle.”
A third eloquently spelled out economic pressures faced by Allegheny’s shanty boat residents:
From the Point Bridge down to Lindsay & McCutcheon’s mill the men occupying the boats are nearly all laborers in the steel works and earn an average $1.35 per day. The rent of a house is from $15 to $16 per month, and that would amount to at least one half of their wages. That would leave a man with only $4 per week with which to support his family.. I am in favor of licensing the owners of the shanty boats… All the honest people are willing to pay a fair price for the privileges granted to them. If a man is not all right he should not be granted a license. There may be boats where people have speak-easies and allow gambling, but the police know them and the authorities should not grant them a license… There is another thing. Many of us are now trying to get homes of our own, but will never be able to do so if we are driven from our boats. We have no great love for the boats, and only occupy them as a matter of necessity and economy.
Protests notwithstanding, on 14 February 1890 Mayor Pearson’s Valentine’s gift to his city was a law prohibiting Allegheny River shanty boats. But the jo-boaters got the last laugh: this was futile legislation, as newspapers reported six months later:
During Mayor Pearson’s administration frequent complaints were made about the shanty boats moored on the Allegheny….and Mayor Pearson started a crusade against them. He succeeded in having an ordinance passed compelling all shanty boats to remove from their respective locations within the city limits. A number of arrests followed of those who refused to obey the order, while many others left for different quarters. With the close of Mayor Pearson’s term of office the crusade against the shanty boats came to an end….there seems to be as many shanty boats as formerly, and the complaints coming from them are as numerous and as loud as they were before.
The Commercial Gazette estimated that nearly 1000 people made their homes on riverboats stretching from the Smithfield Street Bridge to the edge of the Southside city limits.
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