Rollin’ on the River: Pittsburgh Shanty Boat Life

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Allegheny River houseboat, 1905
Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, Historic Pittsburgh Image Collection
Many people only ever set foot on boats for recreational purposes, and therefore imagine houseboat life to be a floating idyll of pleasure and uninterrupted delight.

That was probably the case for Pittsburgh’s Gilded Age floating swells. Mrs. Daniel A. Stewart of Ridge Avenue in Allegheny City was described by the local paper in 1895 as the first Pittsburgher to have adopted seasonal houseboat living, which was then “…so much the style for outing seasons in England that we have to take cognizance of them in this country if we would be at all up to the latest.” Mind you, Mrs. Stewart wasn’t sailing the Mon, Allegheny or Ohio in her little “bijou concern.” William E. Leard of Sewickley was the first recognized houseboat resident on the Ohio in 1897, trolling its waters during the summer months in a $10,000 stern wheeler that could fit 10 people comfortably.

Pittsburg Daily Post, 8 August 1897
By contrast, there were plenty of other Pittsburghers who called the rivers home year-round for whom living on the water was a matter of necessity, not trendiness. No $10,000 water crafts for those working class folks: they lived in what Pittsburghers of the day called “shanty boats” or “jo-boats”.

If you come down to the river, bet you gonna find some people who live
It might seem strange to us now, but throughout the 1800s and well into the 1940s, people could be found living on houseboats along waterways in and between this nation’s industrial cities.

One acquired one’s floating dwelling by any means available. There were houseboats for sale, even sometimes listed in the want ads. But the enterprising river citizen was as likely to scavenge, commandeer and spruce up an abandoned barge as he was to lay out…

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