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The River: Shantyboatin’ is a state of mind. . .and my shantyboat dreaming takes me to amazing places


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

“What’d you want to do with your life you never got to do.”

“I wanted to be a shantyboat man.”

My brothers and I were sorta’ shantyboat boys and loved every minute.

Shantyboatin’s a state of mind. My brothers and I were sorta’ shantyboat boys and loved every minute. Our mother, Anna Margaret, bless her heart, would be appalled to hear me make such a boast. She refused to call our paddlewheeler, the MARJESS, a “houseboat.” To her, the wooden boat with the squared-off bow was always a “scow,” which, technically, it was. When our folks left bobbing on the water for a trailer-house along the shore, the elongated home set on wheels was never a “trailer,” it was forever a “mobile home.”

Though I dreamed my shantyboat dreams, I only came close to realizing my aspirations. The nearest I enjoyed was during my tenure aboard the custom-built, all-steel, former towboat, originally the MARY R-NEW DAY I renamed the SUN*FISH and the acclaimed sternwheeler Rafter CLYDE, both Wisconsin-built beauties. Though my time ended with both those babes, I am left with the lifelong, unfilled desire to “go shantyboatin.”

Josiah “Joe” Leatherbury grew up and spent much of his adulthood in Vevay, Indiana, the small town located across the Ohio River from Ghent, Kentucky.

Practically all the shantyboaters I remember from earlier times are boating on the River Styx these days; still, a few breathing rivermen remain who have sufficient shantyboat interest that I can call on them whenever the urge becomes intractable.

One such fellow I remember who can recall two shantboaters of the old order ending up on the shores of Vevay, Indiana, is Josiah “Joe” Leatherbury. Joe grew up and spent much of his adulthood in the small town located across the Ohio River from Ghent, Kentucky, an ever-smaller town my Sanders ancestor founded in the pioneer times.

Joe is quite an artist in the old sense in that he creates art with paint, pencils, markers, and such. Not like the aspiring warblers on the televised talent shows who call themselves “artists,” when in fact they should be saying they are “singers, crooners, vocalists, or even songbirds.” Joe is a writer, too, and often uses words to give voice to his artistry. About eight years ago, artist Leatherbury released an illustrated tale of two grizzled shantyboatmen, Red Scarf and White Whiskers, who built a shantyboat some distance up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh.

DQ Passing Shantyboat at Vevay — the shantyboatmen agreed upon a solution to settle the dispute in a most shocking manner that likely unnerved the entire Vevay metropolis. (By Joe Leatherbury.)

According to Joe, telling the story through the eyes and voice of himself as a curious first-grader in the Vevay public school:

“From the very beginning, Red Scarf worked hard and diligent, using White Whisker’s money.”

Although old Whiskers pitched in some during the first of construction, he quickly slacked off, and it was Mr. Scarf’s “sheer hard work and long hours” that finished the small ark in the short space of some two weeks. Of course, theirs was a relationship that only grew more disagreeable – especially between two old geezers cramped into a tiny shantyboat cast upon the broad Ohio watercourse. Over time, the boatmen grew so “disenchanted that by the time the tiny craft “drifted on our bleak shore, they knew they were through with each other.”

By that time, Red Scarf and White Whiskers were shouting and carrying on so intensely, the youthful narrator and his pal John “were horrified – we’d never really seen anything like it.”

Finally, the shantyboatmen agreed upon a solution to settle the dispute in a most shocking manner that likely unnerved the entire Vevay metropolis. But as author Leatherbury recently promised his fans, he is planning a re-release of “The Shanty Boat.” Consequently, I promised to leave the ending to the short story reader once it hits the small screen again. There’s no merit in stealing another writer’s thunder.

A group from Charleston, West “By God,” Virginia was reminiscing about the shantyboat community that once graced the Kanawha and Elk Rivers.

Surprisingly, while I was chasing my shantyboat jones, a Facebook group from on the Great Kanawha River at Charleston, West “By God,” Virginia was reminiscing about the shantyboat community that once graced the Kanawha and Elk Rivers at the capital city. My friend Connie Bays, who I knew as a young lady aboard the Charleston excursion boat, the P. A. DENNY, 45 years ago this summer, called my attention to all the comments posted about the floating home the locals preferred to call “houseboats” instead of the shanty variety.

However, I did remind the WV readers: “Shantyboatin’s a state of mind,” and that “my brothers and I were shantyboat boys ….”

One Charleston contributor, a Mr. Jim H., who, as a youth, lived aboard a Charleston “houseboat” recalled:

“I used to fish out the kitchen window. I almost caught a body of a man once! Now that I will never forget!”

When another wondered “how many kids fell off these boats,” Mr. H. answered:

“I fell off the gangplank a few times. We didn’t have handrails…”

Jim H. was also generous enough to include a snapshot of the family houseboat.

Jim H. was also generous enough to include a snapshot of the family houseboat and added:

“That’s me sitting on the rail with the two short ladies. My mom and aunt. Elk River, Charleston, WV Late 30- Early 40s.”

When someone asked Jim H. if he actually remembered living on the Charleston shanty-houseboat, he enthusiastically summed up the post with this reply:

“Oh, gosh yes! I can remember when that picture was taken. I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I had a great family life and good experiences. Sometimes I wish I could go back there in time.”

It seems that Jim and I think much alike. I did, however, enjoy living aboard a riverboat on the Charleston City Front for two years in the mid-1970s. With all the excitement going on in the heart of the capital city, living on the river in the midst of it all reminded me of being on a gigantic movie set anytime, night or day. What a profound, unforgettable experience that was.

Perhaps, the leading personal inducement for “shantyboatin’ being a state of mind” is that I can always access one wherever my thoughts take a notion of heading toward that direction. Like any other cerebral escape, my shantyboat dreaming takes on varying magnitudes from the simplest wooded ark made from scrap lumber to one with more creature comforts built into the framework.

By definition, I have to be cautious and remain within the limitations of what can be classified as a “shanty” of a boat and avoid what supersedes the humble vessel’s expectations and morphs into one of greater proportions.

My shantyboat dreaming takes on varying magnitudes from the simplest wooded ark made from scrap lumber to one with more creature comforts.

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian, and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good. 


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19 Comments

  1. Ronald Sutton says:

    I Believe with age comes an increasing Fondness of ‘Creature Comforts.’ Even in my misspent Youth, I enjoyed things like Heat and Indoor Plumbing. Even the Travel Trailer does better that the rudimentary Houseboat.

  2. Joy Scudder says:

    Great story, Captain Don. If I were a bit younger, I do believe my next home would be a shantyboat.

  3. Matthew Newbauer says:

    Hey cap. What did they use on the hull seams to seal the gaps to make them water tite? Roof tar or some other oil based sealer.

  4. John Jarrett says:

    I had once considered owning a houseboat on Kentucky Lake where I would live when not on The American Queen and Mississippi Queen. Alas, it wasn’t in my future.

  5. Everett Dameron says:

    Great writing Cap. Let me know when you would like to come down river to “My Escape” to spend some shanty boat time, (a few hours or a few days), and tell river stories.

  6. Wade says:

    Campervan people are the new shantyboaters! Ever since I read Shantyboat by Harlan Hubbard I’ve been obsessed of the idea of endless freedom it brings. Maybe one day I’ll break my shackles of society and let the current determine my adventures.

  7. Giorgos Georgantas says:

    Great story Captain Don .I am sharing this with my people here in Greece.Thank you

  8. Sharon says:

    How did they build them to float? What is under the house? I rememver seeing them. If I remember correctly was more up Elk

  9. Timothy G Paco says:

    What a great article . One of my colleagues’ grandfather grew up on a shantyboat .

  10. Jeanette says:

    Wonderful story! My mother had a story that the P. A. DENNY was the old AM Scott that my grandfather had first piloted to deliver from WV to MO…first twin diesel, I think?

  11. Marilyn Ezdon says:

    My mom spoke of a childhood friend who lived in a shantyboat. Probably later 1930’s. On the Mississippi at Trempealeau, WI. They went south for the winter.
    I also read of Winona, MN having a shantyboat few families who stayed year round as no money to live anywherr else.
    Interesting read, Captain.

  12. Beth M says:

    Here’s my Shantyboatin’ family, at Mill Creek on the Ohio River, God love ’em.

  13. Love the stories, I saw a shanty boat in Portsmouth, Ohio a couple summers ago.

  14. Connie Bays says:

    I had a feeling that your next column would be about the shantyboats of Charleston, after calling your attention to all the comments about them in that Facebook group for Charleston memories. Thanks for mentioning me! Your writings never disappoint! Another story, much enjoyed!

  15. Patrick Mullins says:

    Love your stories Don! Thank you for sharing your colorful memoirs!

  16. Jackie Bankston says:

    What a wonderful recounting of life on the river! Shantyboatin’ seems like something I would LOVE if there is indoor plumbing! Great writing Capt.

  17. Eugene Edward Geimer says:

    My grandfather on my mother’s side arrived in Wheeling, West Virginia from Pittsburgh on the Ohio River in a similar craft around 1900. He lived there until met my grandmother, a job at a pottery place, bought a house and remained landlocked from then on. I enjoyed watching paddle wheelers on the Ohio growing up and then later in the same near St. Louis on the Mississippi.

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