The Forgotten River

Sylvia Bensen on the Willamette River

Sylvia Bensen on the Willamette River

The river. The forgotten waterways that flow through most towns, often culverted, hidden behind levees, shoved underground or behind the grubbiest neighborhood. The former arteries of America, the way goods and services and people got around, long before coast to coast railroads and highways. Rivers and bays and estuaries, formerly so important they get special attention in the constitution of many U.S. states and commonwealths.

For a century, shantyboat communities sprung up in poor areas in the rural bottomlands and the industrial towns, places for itinerant workers, miners, fishermen, shipbuilders, displaced farmers. Minneapolis, Knoxville, Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, Portland, and numerous towns, on the Mississippi River, the Illinois, the Ohio, the Tennessee, the Willamette, rivers and lakes and waterways all over the continent.

Working-class and impoverished people were responsible for much of the wealth and history of river valleys and waterways: the people who brought the fish, the people who built the ships, the people who picked the crops. Now for the most part, these communities are either abandoned or displaced.

Until the 20th century, every city in America turned its eager face to their rivers, the principle source of goods, people, and capital. But with the railroads and finally highways, American towns turned their backs on the river. Now these waterways, river people, long-gone shantyboat communities, and their stories are all but forgotten.

For those cities facing ecological and economic crisis and attempting to reestablish a connection to their rivers, the impulse is to create a shiny, clean and sanitized parkland — a kind of mall with a river running through it — rather than a wild and natural waterway. Cities create concrete abutments, river walks, riverside parks, aggressive policing, and regularly remove shrubs and foliage from the floodplain to discourage unauthorized use, such as squatting.

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1 comment for “The Forgotten River

  1. Timothy Mason
    August 12, 2014 at 2:59 am

    You are so frigin’ correct! I was born in a rivertown (Marquette Iowa and live nearby) on the Upper Mississippi, the town is now owned by the Goldstein gambling empire family lock, stock & barrel. However it had a rich historical culture of human interaction with the riv’. Keep up your work of preserving the real river history, peace Tim Mason

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