Highlands Current: Shanty on the River – A Secret History of American River People

Highlands Current: Shanty on the River

Highlands Current
By Ross Corsair

Wes Modes and Lauren Benz, accompanied by Hazel the dog, are sailing down the Hudson River to New York City aboard a shanty boat. We caught up with them on July 15 in Kingston, a few days before they passed the Highlands to dock in Haverstraw, opposite Croton.

Modes and Benz are navigating the Hudson as part of a project organized by Modes, who teaches art at the University of California at Santa Cruz, called “A Secret History of American River People.” For the past four years, Modes and his shipmates have been collecting stories from people who live and work along rivers.

“Rivers were the freeways of the 18th and 19th century, and ideas moved up the river,” he says. “If you were a river town, you were more cosmopolitan than a town that was a day’s wagon ride 100 miles inland.”

The shanty boat also has traveled the Mississippi, Tennessee and Sacramento rivers. To read the stories collected so far, visit peoplesriverhistory.us.

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