A shantyboat is a small crude houseboat (also called a flatboat, broadhorn, barge, scow, or ark). There is a long forgotten history in America of people living in homemade shantyboats, a reasonable and cost-free solution for displaced people in rural areas and workers in urban areas.
During the 19th century into the 1930s, itinerant workers lived in shantyboats along the canals and rivers of industrial American towns. Now, not only the shantyboats are gone, but the wild river banks, the river-based industry, and even the towns and neighborhoods adjacent to the river.
Working-class people living on the water is tied to economic conditions, the boom and bust cycles of capitalism, the 1890s, the Great Depression, the 70s, and the early 2000s.
In the fallout from the U.S. economic collapse in 1893, thousands of families left their homes in the upper Mississippi Valley in home-built shantyboats to look for work along the more industrialized lower Mississippi River and Ohio River Valleys. In the 1930s, displaced and jobless people took to the waters, to live or to travel to look for work. Dozens of published chronicles of these family sojourns are still available.
During the 1960s and 70s, a water-based analogue of the Back To The Land movement blossomed in leftover houseboat communities. People looked to the relative freedom of rivers, lakes, and seas, especially in floating communities in Sausalito, California, Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon. Largely class-based conflicts between these houseboat communities and land-based home owners decimated these communities, and still flare up occasionally in the remnants of these communities today.
More recently, young middle-class men and women, principally from punk and anarchist communities, have taken to the river in homemade houseboats to float the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Missouri and other rivers. Despite the maze of regulation and prohibition against it, some of these itinerant communities of boat people still exist here and there.