Blog focused on artists who examine, move over, look at, work with, journey on, use metaphorically, or create new connections to water, rivers, lakes, oceans, or boats.

An Artist, a Shantyboat, and the Lost History of American River Communities

Wes Modes is documenting life along America’s waterways.

An article in Atlas Obscura by Jonathan Carey.

Made from recycled materials, Modes’s shantyboat can weather the storms.  WES MODES/ CC BY-NC-SA 

Made from recycled materials, Modes’s shantyboat can weather the storms. WES MODES/ CC BY-NC-SA 

THE RIVERS OF THE UNITED States have a certain lore and mystique within American culture. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these roaring waterways were home to thousands. Entire communities existed on or near the water in self-made houseboats. The history of these communities has been explored briefly in river memoirs such as Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat Journal, but hasn’t been thoroughly examined in a present-day context. That is, until a modern shantyboat came bobbing down the Mississippi in the summer of 2014.

Wes Modes was at the helm of that vessel. Modes is a lecturer at the University of California Santa Cruz. He is also the primary force behind “A Secret History of American River People,” a project aimed at capturing “the lost narratives of river people, river communities, and the river itself.” Modes, an artist by trade, has spent the last six years traveling the Mississippi, Hudson, Tennessee, and Sacramento Rivers during the summers, creating a moving museum/work of art, while also documenting the oral history of American river culture and people’s connection to the water.

A houseboat in 1915.  PUBLIC DOMAIN

A houseboat in 1915. PUBLIC DOMAIN

Modes’s shantyboat resting along the banks of the Sacramento River. WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Modes’s shantyboat resting along the banks of the Sacramento River. WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Through interviewing members of contemporary river communities, Modes says he has been able to compile a “complementary and contradictory collage of unexpected stories that people tell.” For example, he has spoken to people whose homes have been pushed off a river by shifting socioeconomic conditions. But he has also chatted with a family who owns a very expensive home near the same river, and that family was unaware they were doing the pushing.

Wes Modes interviews Art Owen of the Prairie Island Dakota Tribe.  WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Wes Modes interviews Art Owen of the Prairie Island Dakota Tribe. WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Inside the shantyboat, Modes displays some of the items he has collected from his journeys.  WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Inside the shantyboat, Modes displays some of the items he has collected from his journeys. WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Modes working on his digital archive aboard the shantyboat.  WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Modes working on his digital archive aboard the shantyboat. WES MODES/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Read the full article at Atlas Obscura.

The project has until May 9th to raise funds to bring the shantyboat to the Ohio River and work their way downriver collecting stories for the archive. Check out the project Kickstarter.

Full transparency: The editor of the Works On Water blog and the artist whose work is profiled in the article are one and the same.