California resident will dock shantyboat in Steubenville in June to collect images, oral histories about Ohio River

Contributed PASSING THROUGH — Artist and university lecturer Wes Modes pilots his shantyboat on the Hudson River. Modes, who spends his summers on America’s rivers gathering images and oral histories of those who live along them, will dock his boat in Steubenville in late June.

STEUBENVILLE — A California resident who spends his summers on America’s rivers, gathering information and images to tell the story of the people and communities that grew up around them, will be stopping in Steubenville in June.

Artist and university lecturer Wes Modes will dock his shantyboat in Steubenville so he can talk to locals about the Ohio River and how it’s shaped their lives.

“Steubenville’s a river community, and I like to think all of the people who live in a river community are river people,” Modes said, pointing out his favorite subjects are the ones “no one else pays attention to, like people of color, the poor, itinerant workers, natives and elders who remember the Ohio River from a different time. Sometimes they have a deep connection to the river, sometimes they don’t — but even if they don’t, their stories are interesting, too.”

The oral histories are part of Modes’ “The Secret History of American River People” project, aimed at examining the ways river communities respond to threats to river culture — like economic displacement, gentrification, environmental damage caused by generations of river modification and the effects of global climate change.

“Sometimes their stories are personal experiences from living in a river community,” he said. “It can be a different story. If you talk to a white suburbanite, then talk to people in rougher, poorer areas, you’ll see people have different versions of what it means.”

He said many communities have lost touch with their river roots, shifting their focus inland and, like Steubenville, building a major highway as a buffer between their two worlds.

“Minneapolis built freeways along the river,” he said. “Now they regret it because people don’t have access to the river anymore.”

Modes said he and his crew will launch the shantyboat around June 18 from Pittsburgh, which would have them arriving in Steubenville around June 28.

“I’ve spent the last 14 years or so, every summer, on the river,” Modes added. “It gets in your blood. It’s an opportunity to talk to people, to hear their stories about the river and their communities.”

He plans to arrive in Louisville, Ky., on Aug. 1.

“I get to spend the whole summer on the river, on a delightful boat with great people, talking to river folk,” Modes said. “But the serious side is my interest in history, my interest in hearing about the challenges a river community can face.”

Visit http://peoplesriverhistory.us for more information.