Portrait of a Steamboat Riverfront

By Gregg Andrews

To celebrate its being awarded the James V. Swift Medal for Excellence in Maritime Literature, we share here an excerpt from the introduction of Gregg Andrews’s Shantyboats and Roustabouts: The River Poor of St. Louis, 1875–1930. This section of the book describes the unique, eclectic, and sometimes dangerous world of the St. Louis levee and the outsiders who called it home.

Houseboat along Ohio River near Rochester, Pennsylvania, 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“The steamboat age perfectly expressed America,” wrote Bernard DeVoto in Mark Twain’s America in 1932. The Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, novelist, and editor of Mark Twain’s papers pointed to a cast of picaresque characters in the Mississippi River valley who helped fuel Twain’s literary creativity. The river attracted its share of hucksters, shysters, and roguish drifters who, like tangled driftwood, formed the cultural landscape from which Twain drew his fictional portraits. Steamboats died a slow death between 1875 and the Great Depression, but the river continued as a home for outsiders—the levee poor, miscreants, moonshiners, misfits, and cultural refugees from an industrializing society on the make. “Even the debris through which it passed,” DeVoto observed, “was vital and eloquent—the dens at Helena and Natchez and all the waterside slums; the shanty boats with their drifting loafers; the boats of medicine shows, daguerreotypers, minstrel troupes, doctors, thugs, prophets, saloon keepers, whoremasters. The squatters on the banks and the unbelievable folk of the bayous. It was a cosmos.”

St. Louis’s riverfront was a magnet for the “debris.” In 1875, the St. Louis Republican painted a vivid picture of the levee as a place to avoid at night. Prowlers, prostitutes, and pickpockets along with thieves, scoundrels, and hustlers of every sort roamed the wharf. If you were looking for “forty-horse-power whiskey at ten cents a drink” and a night of carousing and debauchery, the levee was your place. . . . As steamboat traffic declined after the Civil War, the levee of the nation’s fourth largest city in 1900 attracted shantyboats from the “Father of Waters” and its tributaries. Within a forty-three-mile stretch to the north, “water gypsies” on the Illinois and Missouri rivers joined a stream of wayfarers from St. Paul and other towns on the Upper Mississippi. Approximately 175 miles below St. Louis, shantyboats from Ohio River valley towns floated out into the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois. The destination of many was New Orleans for the winter. “The river is the highway of the poor,” wrote W. A. Curtis aboard a steamboat from St. Louis to St. Paul in 1914. “Rafts with families on them floated by us. On island after island queer looking sloops were hauled up among the trees and people camped beside them. How sailing vessels manage, with the changing channel, I could not imagine and could not learn.”

Fisherman’s Shack, Louisiana, Missouri, 1914. Courtesy of the Thomson Collection.

St. Louis provides a panoramic window into the world of America’s rogues and river poor—DeVoto’s “debris” and “cosmos” of the Mississippi basin. The city’s waterfront settlements and roustabouts’ hangouts were eyesores to many, nuisances to city officials and waterfront developers, and criminal dens to police. They attracted high-rolling riverboat gamblers, circus entertainers, medicine boat shows, “floating palaces,” Gospel steamers, and pirates and counterfeiters who sought to hide among the honest dwellers. The levee poor came under fire from child rescue societies, preachers, social welfare agencies, state legislatures, and moral reformers of all stripes. For a corrupt child trafficker like Georgia Tann, head of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society in Memphis, waterfront settlements were a place to pluck away children to sell to desperate adoptive parents with money to throw around. For authors of dime novels and adult popular fiction, songwriters, and early filmmakers, the levee provided subjects of artistic inspiration to romanticize, poke fun at, and wrap into the nation’s Jim Crow nostalgia. In the face of relentless condemnation, shantyboat wayfarers and roustabouts did the best they could against great odds to carve out a meaningful life at the water’s edge. The levee shaped them, and they in turn left a mark on American culture for decades to come as St. Louis transformed from a river town into an industrial city.

Gregg Andrews is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at Texas State University and the author of several books, including Thyra J. Edwards: Black Activist in the Global Freedom Struggle.

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Shantyboat dwellers and steamboat roustabouts formed an organic part of the cultural landscape of the Mississippi River bottoms during the rise of industrial America and the twilight of steamboat packets from 1875 to 1930. Nevertheless, both groups remain understudied by scholars of the era. Gregg Andrews’s Shantyboats and Roustabouts uses the waterfront squatter settlements and Black entertainment district near the levee in St. Louis as a window into the world of the river poor in the Mississippi Valley, exploring their daily struggles and experiences and vividly describing people heretofore obscured by classist and racist caricatures.

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