The Real Houseboats of the Mississippi

Floating with the live-aboards at the Watergate Marina and the St. Paul Yacht Club

One legendary river rat used to have cards that proclaimed him "Captain Crazy Carl's Classic Car Company, Seven Seas." Everyone just called him Crazy Carl.

Carl lived at Lilydale and hung around the Watergate, patrolling the river with his ukulele, patchwork pants, and hair down to the middle of his back. In the winters, he drove his two cars — a 1956 Ford Ranchero station wagon and a 1963 Cadillac El Dorado — out to Bozeman, Montana, to make a living playing guitar for the season.

To get them both out there he leapfrogged for two weeks: Take the Ranchero to Fargo, hitchhike back to the Cities; take the Cadillac to Minot, North Dakota, and then hitchhike to Fargo to get the Ranchero. Once in Bozeman, he lived in the Ranchero and used the Cadillac to get around town.

Benjamin Carter Grimes
Don MacLeod and his dog, Eva, recently celebrated their one-year anniversary as live-aboards at the Watergate
Benjamin Carter Grimes
Don MacLeod and his dog, Eva, recently celebrated their one-year anniversary as live-aboards at the Watergate

In the summer, Carl did the same thing on the return, then spent the warm months crafting houseboats out of cheap plywood.

"He'd nail these things together and he'd dump a quart of used motor oil in the bilge to make them waterproof, and then he'd put a 5-horsepower motor on the back," says Halter, who knew him in those days. "They were works of art."

Over his years working the river, in roles ranging from barge pilot to diesel engineer, Halter has seen the live-aboard communities expand and contract. He regards them today with a sense of nostalgia.

"Even in the late '70s, Crazy Carl would say, 'The river's going to hell,'" Halter recalls. "'All these people in plastic boats are just ruining the river.' And I said, 'Carl, the river you're thinking of exists only in your mind.' I think he had some idealized version of guys in wooden houseboats, but that never existed either. The river's still the river."

There's one thing less

frequent around marinas these days: younger adults, people in their 20s and 30s, discovering the dream of the river for themselves.

"The younger generation, they're not getting into boating the way my generation got into it," muses Mark Sauer, a master shipwright who runs St. Paul Shipwrights out of the Watergate. "The average age of a boat owner down at the St. Paul Yacht Club is probably 65, and 30 years ago, they were all boating and they were 35."

Sauer speculates that the pressures have changed for adults today. He sees his nieces and nephews "all out working their butts off," without the time to tie up at some hidden islands over on the St. Croix and live rent-free, as he did one summer in his 20s.

When Halter first started working on the river, everyone else working the Mississippi was his age, and "we used to go out in our johnboats at night and just raise hell."

Now, he says, "the river's become so gentrified that the real characters are gone."

There's less action on the river today than there once was. It's become more a body of leisure than of industry. Thirty years ago, eight companies did the freight shipping work now done by one. Commercial navigation on the upper Mississippi has been on the decline since the mid-1990s.

At the same time, the national trend among marinas has been to institute rules about how much time marina members can stay on their boats — curfews, in other words, that make living aboard impossible. The fact is, houseboaters can be a hassle.

Lindrud, the manager at the Watergate, describes one of the functions of his job as "adult daycare." Down at the SPYC, Anderson says that his 23 live-aboards demand more of his time than the rest of the nearly 200 seasonal boaters.

"Many marinas are turning away from live-aboards," Anderson says.

But for now, the mythology of the Mississippi continues to call some to live on its banks.

People like Brodey. At 34, Brodey has friends who did follow a certain template of the millennial generation: go to a good school, get a good job, live in a manicured neighborhood. But she wanted to find her own way to live in the city.

"I looked at that and was like, security doesn't interest me as this really fun thing," she says. "I sort of feel like I snuck into the party on this one."

She curls up on her deck, leaning against skull-and-crossbones pirate pillows, and starts thinking about Jonathan, her name for her favorite of the Watergate's resident beavers.

"Jonathan doesn't know how close we are to 10 Bath and Body Works," Brodey says. "At night, even though the airport is so close, I can lay up on the roof and hear nothing but birds and crickets. I don't know how that's possible. Maybe it's magic."

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