The Daily Freeman: Shanty boat crew, docking in Kingston, gathers disappearing history of nation’s river people

The Daily Freeman
by William J. Kemble


KINGSTON, N.Y. >> The Hudson River is the fourth leg of a journey by Wes Modes and his shanty boat crew mates, who have spent the past four years gathering stories of how the nation’s major rivers became arteries of life flowing through the American landscape.

Modes, an artist from Santa Cruz, Calif., will be docked at the Hudson River Maritime Museum on East Strand in Kingston from Friday to Sunday as part of the project “A Secret History of American River People: The Lost Narratives of River People, River Communities and the River Itself.”

A formal presentation will be given at 2 p.m. Sunday at the museum, 86 East Strand.

Modes and his shanty boat have traveled more than 1,250 miles along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Sacramento rivers as part of a project, now in its fifth year, that is equal parts artistic and historical research. He has found that the Hudson River’s tales and features are as unique as those of each of the other three water bodies.

“I had an interview this morning (Thursday) with a fellow whose family owned one of the Hudson fishing shacks that are just above [the city of] Hudson,” Modes said. “There’s a series of shanty towns, and none of those people live in those places anymore, and they are failing into ruin, and that’s a bit of river culture that’s disappearing.”

The stories tend to come to Modes because people are acutely aware of what is disappearing along the rivers. The Hudson River is significant, he said, because it features remnants of nearly all the significant changes in U.S. culture. He noted that, as with each of the rivers, not all of the changes have been good or pleasant.

“I started learning more about when the river was a place that was ignored and the place where the sewage ran or the [industrial] plants dumped their stuff,” he said. “I learned who lived down there around that time and what kind of culture did they build around that, and around fishing and around transportation.”

Modes is fascinated by what became of the past cultures and the community life that existed in riverside villages and cities.

“All these towns grew up along the rivers because those were the hubs of transportation,” he said. “Those were the freeways of the 18th and 19th century. That’s where … ideas moved up the river, and if you were a river town, you were more cosmopolitan than a town that was a day’s wagon ride 100 miles inland. So those towns all have a similarity in that sense.”

Modes said some of the river culture he’s become aware of takes on a reverence that predates the European exploration of American waterways, with the upper reaches of the Mississippi having a spiritual significance for residents.

“Up where I started on the Mississippi, the Lakota people were more present for them,” he said. “People understood that the place where the Minnesota [River], which is literally a Sioux word, met the Mississippi was a sacred place.”

Modes said there seems to be an understanding of the Hudson River by the residents who grow up along what is actually a tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I feel like there’s a strong sense of both the historic and the cultural,” he said. “There’s no one here that doesn’t know why the Hudson is named the Hudson or what the significance is historically. People are very connected to the Hudson because the Hudson is a very direct line, straight to what, even today, is cultural the heart of things in New York City.”

Modes said the local knowledge of the river is helpful to his project because it allows for more in-depth information gathering.

“People understand the river here, which is refreshing for us, because then we can get past the surface of things and start asking about the conflicts in the communities, the things that have changed, the things that are still the same, things that are perfect, things that are imperfect,” he said.

Modes’ stops after Kingston will be the Haverstraw Brick Museum, the Waterfront Museum in Brooklyn and the White Box Art Space along Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

To see the project’s collection of stories and photos online, go to

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