The Seven Wonders of Portsmouth

Post by honorary shipmate Andrew Feight

Shanty Dotty on the Ohio, tied up at the Anchor Pad in Portsmouth, Ohio (18 July 2019). Earlier this week I had the pleasure of sitting for an interview with Wes Modes. Funded with a grant from the Ohio Humanities Council, Wes and his two shipmates (production assistants) are floating down the river in a 1940s-era Shantyboat (the Dotty), stopping off to interview folks who live and work in Ohio river towns.

Wes gave me the chance to talk about local history, particularly the history of the Underground Railroad and the African American struggle for equal rights in Portsmouth. Wes invited me on board the Dotty and, eventually, made me an honorary shipmate. As Captain, he said he had three rules: 1. The Captain isn’t always right; 2. Keep the center aisle of the cabin clear; and 3. Stay in frequent communication — when I give you an order, you tell me when you are doing it; and, then again, when you have finished the order.

When I joined the crew on Thursday morning, Jeremiah Daniels, who has worked as a project production assistant for the past six years, kept Wes — the shanty boat captain and project director — on his daily production schedule — logging their interviews, backing up files to a hard drive, wiping SD Cards for their next use, and posting to the project’s website and social media. Meanwhile a second assistant, Adrian Nankivell of Queenstown, New Zealand, made a breakfast of espresso and fried Japanese-style cabbage pancakes on a small gas grill.

No accounting of the Dotty’s crew should fail to mention Hazel, the most friendly and well-behaved shanty dog that any river person could ever dream up.

The Dotty is (as she was intended to be) a work of art and her cabin is furnished with a leather love seat, a river-themed library, bar, and kitchen. It is a tiny house, well-designed for comfort Wes calls his work a “secret” history, but he conducts it in public and does so with the latest digital tools and social media platforms. The history Wes Modes and crew are in search of is that which is largely invisible and has too often gone unrecorded. It is a people’s history, a history of the river people and their river towns, the history of the common man and woman and those who live on the fringes of society. It is what Wes calls a “Secret History of American River People.” 

Wes Modes interviewed me in the shade, with the US Grant Bridge and the Ohio in the background.

On his website, Wes notes that “historically, working-class and impoverished people were a critical part of the wealth and history of river valleys and waterways: the people who brought the fish, who built the ships, who picked the crops. For more than a century, shantyboat communities sprung up in poor areas in the rural bottomlands and the industrial towns, places for itinerant workers, miners, fishermen, displaced farmers. The bootleggers, the sex workers, the undesirables. Now these riverside districts, bottomland slums, and long-gone shantyboat communities are either abandoned or displaced, all going or gone. Whole communities written out of the history books, their stories all but forgotten.”

My interaction with Wes Modes and the shanty boat project led me to look into Portsmouth’s past and I found confirmation that the history of the old local shantyboat community has also been lost like so many other American stories to the passage of time and the tendency for the history of the poor and the marginalized to go unrecorded.

On 7 December 1915, the Portsmouth Daily Times ran a satirical list of the “Seven Wonders of Portsmouth,” one of which was “the shanty boat community on the river front.” 

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