Book traces history of boathouses on the Mississippi

2009-07-04T00:00:00Z Book traces history of boathouses on the MississippiChris Martell | Wisconsin State Journal Winona Daily News

The Mississippi River, even before Mark Twain spun his tales about the mighty waterway, has captivated countless people.

More than anyone, perhaps, are those who've lived in the little "boathouses" clustered along its banks. "Boathouses" are not to be confused with houseboats that cruise up and down the river. Or the boathouses built on shore that shelter nothing but boats.

These boathouses are year-round, stationary and can't move anywhere without being pushed or towed. Poles at each corner keep them in place, and they're connected to shore by walkways.

They stand on logs or plastic barrels, freezing into the ice in winter and floating in summer, moving up and down with changing water levels. They're the humble homes of people and their boats.

Among them is Marti Greene Phillips of Rio, Wis., who became fascinated with them during a hike along the river nine years ago. She saw a lighted beer sign in a window of one of the odd little buildings and was invited inside by the owner for a beer and some storytelling. Charmed by the intimacy with the water, waterlilies and wildlife, she bought one on the Minnesota side of the river in Brownsville for a weekend getaway.

She wanted to learn more about boathouses and their history but found nothing but a few newspaper articles and local lore. So before the generation of people who built them were gone and their stories lost forever, she decided to find them and write a book. "The Floating Boathouses on the Upper Mississippi: Their History, Their Stories" was self-published this spring.

The book focuses on the 160-mile span of the river from Red Wing, Minn., to Prairie du Chien, where about 600 boathouses remain "in twos, threes and strands." They still stand despite attempts by residents of La Crosse, Wis., and other cities to get rid of them. In Iowa, efforts to banish boathouses succeeded, and only a few remain.

Humble beginnings

Living in boathouses on the Mississippi dates to the 19th century, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built them for its workers. Others were built by seasonal workers, clammers, hunters or trappers. During the Depression, they were filled with people who had lost everything else. Squatters moved into boathouses that were vacant or had been abandoned.

After World War II, an altogether different wave of interest in boathouses emerged. The new concept of weekend recreation grew, and chief among the diversions were water sports. In 1955, a book on how to build a boathouse was published, with simple living quarters in part of the boat, and a boat slip with flooring in another, connected by a door. The exit facing shore was tightly buttoned up, while the part facing the river had big windows and a porch.

A labyrinth of federal, state and local entities watch over the Mississippi, and the boathouses perched upon it. It's not clear what the future holds for them. Most that remain have been "grandfathered." But no more permits will be issued, so no more can be built.

Phillips hopes the growing scarcity of boathouses won't make them objects of desire to the affluent, who could push out the longtime river rats who want to teach their grandchildren how to fish for bluegill off of the porch.

"It is very difficult to find a boathouse for sale," Phillips said. "I have seen a few for sale in Winona in the past year. The price can easily run to $40,000 and up. It's a very expensive shack, or fairly cheap waterfront property. The prices have more than doubled in the past 10 years, as there are no new permits, the political situation is fairly stable, and the younger generations are wanting them.

"I believe that making the boathouses an upscale haven would belie their origins and the people, times and do-it-yourself abilities that created them," she said.

Learn more

"The Floating Boathouses on the Upper Mississippi River: Their History, Their Stories" by Martha Green Phillips ($28, softcover) can be ordered online at It contains color photographs and art and archival pictures.

Copyright 2015 Winona Daily News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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