Category Archives: blog


Shantyboat at FIGMENT Oakland [Video]

A Secret History exhibited at FIGMENT in Oakland. The shantyboat had already gone up to Oakland the previous weekend when we went to the Sacramento Delta. So it was an easier journey than it would have been hauling the boat up from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

FIGMENT is a one day art festival that brings Burning Man values of creative expression, gift economy, and participation to our urban environment. Thousands of people came to FIGMENT and trouped through the shantyboat, checking out everything including the  digital archive and the library.


For the first time at an exhibition, I invited people to write their river stories. Just a little hand-written card, “GOT A RIVER STORY?” I didn’t know if anyone would take the time to leave a story at an arts festival so full of interesting, engaging things to do.


People did. They left dozens and dozens of river stories which will all go into the Secret History archive.


I invited musicians at FIGMENT to use the Shantyboat as a stage. Groups large and small performed throughout the afternoon. Wildflower Orphan Train played the first set in the video above.


The New Thoreaus brought a four-piece band to the shantyboat . (Photos by Calista Chandler.)




ENE (Eugene Chen and Serene Pichotti) were an energetic duo accompanied by Ukulele





Marilyn and Rafael played a mellow set near the end of the day. Check out Marilyn’s music and videos.



Lauren Donovan and the Creepy Guy [VIDEO]

This is the second excerpt of an interview I did with Lauren Donovan, who kayaked the length of the Mississippi River from Lake Itasca to New Orleans. We met her as we were moored at the public dock in Hastings, MN. She paddled up the river with a friend in a Walmart inflatable raft.

Here she talks about an unexpected meeting while camping along the river.

The long form of this interview will be part of the Secret History archive.


History of Flatboating and a Charming Educational Film

The Steamboat Times website has collected some interesting photographs and stories of early flatboats, the precursors of shantyboats. Flatboats were simple shallow-draft boats that allowed farmers to take their surpluses downriver after the harvest in the unpredictably low water of late summer and fall.




Many of these flatboats were covered to protect the crews and cargo from sun and rain as these beautiful photographs show.




“Storeboats” were flatboats that were literally mobile stores, traveling from one town to the next selling manufactured goods and produce. They were usually built for a one-way journey that would take their proprietor’s and crew away from home for a number of months. The name of the proprietor would be painted on the side, and at the end of the venture the crew would be paid off, to return upriver by steamboat or train. However, a successful owner might also hire a steamer to tow his storeboat back upriver, especially if his storeboat was well-built and he planned to repeat the exercise.

This photograph depicts two storeboats lashed together at Louisville, Kentucky, in 1880. Lashing two boats was a common practice, and probably reduced labor costs, maximized piloting skills, and encouraged the townsfolk to visit the stores.

At the end of the journey downriver, flatboats were typically sold for their timbers. The proprietor would then take return home via steamboat, train, or mule.

These covered flatboats are the direct ancestors of the shantyboats used by displaced agricultural workers, factory and mine workers, migrating families, sex workers, and bootleggers on rivers on the fringes of town throughout the U.S.

William Glasier Crop
William Glasier Crop
Family on Houseboat
Family on Houseboat

This “Instructional sound film” by  Erpi Classroom Films, Inc. with the help of Thomas D. Clark from the University of Kentucky is part of the Prelinger Archive on