The Jo-Boat Boys
May 22, 2018 6:11 PM   Subscribe

When Pittsburgh's rivers were full of houseboats.
posted by Chrysostom (6 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Pretty interesting article and collection of sources!

I'm told my great grandmother actually lived in one of these types of shanty boats for a while on the Potomac River after her husband died. There they were called "arks," and they persisted at least into the 1950s. My father says he remembers visiting her on her ark when he was a small child. It's a bit funny to imagine, because the neighborhood where she and many other river folk moored in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, is now extremely ritzy, and the docks were demolished years ago.

I find this kind of history fascinating. It's the history of the underclasses, rarely taught in schools.
posted by biogeo at 7:26 PM on May 22, 2018 [3 favorites]

That's a terrific site, how did I not know about it yet?

I'd kind of prefer the likes of Mrs. Virginia Gabell living down by the stadium than the football and bro-country music fans that dock there these days.
posted by octothorpe at 7:45 PM on May 22, 2018

This lifestyle appears to have spanned the peak years for industrial effluent flowing into Pittsburgh’s rivers. At that time, steel mill Bessemer blows filled the skies with filth and slag dumps poisoned the ground with metals and chemicals of every description, and it all ultimately found its way to the rivers. As a fourth-generation Pittsburgher I grew up hearing about the city’s legendary pollution. Nobody wanted to get close to those waters. I must therefore shudder to think of the exposures these people endured and how their health must have been affected.

Terrific article, thanks for posting.
posted by kinnakeet at 7:53 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

It was a delight to be so carefree
posted by tclark at 8:45 PM on May 22, 2018 [2 favorites]

Twenty five years ago on Lake Union in Seattle I was friends with a couple of twentysomething brothers who lived in a pair of turn of the century houseboats that been hauled up off the lake and onto an embankment overlooking a weirdly unused portion of land that is now a city park. The former houseboats were salvaged Pullmann railcars, reseated on simple (and surprisingly lightly built) rafts comprised of four main floatspars, two running each way longwise and shortwise. The logs served as the buildings' foundations and neither the railcar cabins nor the logs had had any particular maintenance since they were joines, say, ninety years before.

It was amazing, and that neglected corner of property along the lake, overgrown with morning glory and blackberry, was heaven itself.
posted by mwhybark at 8:55 PM on May 22, 2018 [9 favorites]

A few years later across the river in Pittsburgh, Director of Public Works Edward Bigelow fired the final salvo in his months-long war with Pittsburgh’s houseboat residents: they were to be evicted from Monongahela River shores once and for all on 1 August 1895.

Bigelow left a huge imprint on the city of Pittsburgh. He created the parks system, all of the boulevards that connect the parks (including the one that bares his name) and the water and sewage system.
posted by octothorpe at 8:25 AM on May 23, 2018

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