Messenger - Vol. 1, No. 1, Page 14
Fall 1991
Floating cabins once lined bay's inlets

     Until the turn of the century, hundreds of people spent their
weeknights asleep on the waters between Delaware and New Jersey. In
small buildings known as floating cabins, they kept company, waiting
for the sun to rise, swapping stories and dreaming of shad and
sturgeon, and other important wetlands turtles. The
cabins were a mainstay for local fishermen until the 1920s, when the
automobile put an end to an intriguing regional tradition.

     Almost a century ago, Natalie Peters says, floating cabins
crowded the creeks of New Jersey like cars fill the interstate today.
Known alternatively as "cabin boats" and "shad boat-houses," floating
cabins gave fishermen a place to sleep and kept them close to the fish
they followed. From the upper reaches of Salem County, N.J., to
Delaware Bay, the cabins were a second home for an unknown number of
generations, who lived off the bounty of local waters.
     A senior majoring in American studies and English at the
University, Peters, 25, is one of 12 undergraduates in the University
Honors Program's Humanities Scholars program. She is researching
floating cabins for her senior thesis in American studies.
     After 11 months of research, including more than 20 interviews
with people whose families used floating cabins, Peters concludes the
cabins were used "as temporary residences for shad fishermen
throughout the fishing season." Inhabitants of the floating cabins
fished for shad, sturgeon and other wildlife from skiffs they kept
near their cabins, she says.
     The cabins, which were staked in the mouths of creeks leading to
the Delaware River, served as transportation to good fishing areas,
and as a place to sleep, Peters says. But they fell out of use when
the automobile gave fishermen the chance to go home without leaving
their work too far behind.
     Peters says black and white photos belonging to local residents
show fishermen standing in front of hundreds of floating cabins. She
estimates the pictures were taken around 1920.
     Today, there are only 12 clearly identifiable floating cabins in
Salem County, N.J., and in lower Delaware, all of which are resting on
private property, Peters says. Another 12 buildings, which seem to
have been greatly modified, may once have been floating cabins.
     According to Peters, the typical floating cabin was a one-room,
rectangular building, with a door at each end. The front of the cabin,
distinguished by trim, often included a two-part door, which could be
opened at either the top or bottom.
     A type of house boat, the cabins were probably similar to one
type of water craft used around the Mississippi River area but
differed in that the cabins were not self-propelled,  Peters says.
     "But the New Jersey or Delaware river floating cabins are unusual
in that they were used seasonally, and as seasonal residences to reach
the river," she says. "These structures appear to have been built in
the community, to meet the specific needs of the Delaware River."
     According to Peters, the cabins also had at least one set of
bunks, which were usually located in a rear corner of the dwelling.
The bunks were fastened to two walls and the floor. Wood or
coal-burning stoves provided the cabins with warmth and a place to
     In one cabin, Peters says, she found a removable step at the
entrance, which, during conversations with some cabin owners, revealed
a covert use of floating cabins. "I thought they were using it during
prohibition, which is what I asked them, and they said, 'Yeah, we were
doing that, too.'
     "It wasn't until the folks really got to know me and trust me
that they would open up and said, 'We confess, we were doing some
smuggling.' I found out later that they were using that open area to
smuggle turtles who didn't meet the trapping regulations. They'd leave
them in there alive and feed them until they were regulation size,
which was, of course, against the law."
     Peters' study of floating cabins began last fall, when she
examined folk architecture in a class with Bernard Herman, associate
director of the Center for Historic Architecture and Engineering.
Class members had to choose a structure or a type of structure to
research and document, Peters says.
     "Many of the students researched one specific house and traced
the ownership" she says. "Dr. Herman knew of my interest in folklore
and gave me the names of two people who had contacted him about these
floating cabins," she says.
     Herman, who is also a senior policy scientist in the College of
Urban Affairs and Public Policy, says Peters "has recovered a way of
life which we were on the verge of losing." In October, he says,
Peters will present her research to a joint meeting of the American
Folklore Society and the Canadian Folklore Association in
     With the help of students in the Center for Historic Architecture
and Engineering, Peters has diagramed the cabins she's encountered.
According to Herman, copies of the drawings will be sent to the
Library of Congress, as part of the Historic American Building Survey.
     Peters says at least three floating cabins are going to be
     The Port Penn Interpretive Center in Delaware, an organization
dedicated to the preservation of local cultural heritage and run by
the state's Division of Parks and Recreation, has accepted the only
cabin known to exist on the Delaware side of Delaware River, according
to Charles Salkin, manager of technical services for the Division of
Parks and Recreation.
     Salkin says the cabin, which measures 8 feet by 16 feet, will be
renovated to closely resemble its appearance as a floating cabin and
eventually will be permanently displayed in Port Penn.
     In New Jersey, at least two cabins are involved in preservation
efforts, Peters says. One has been adopted by a Salem County
vocational school, she says.
     "They have structured a course on maritime cultural heritage
around the reconstruction of this cabin, and that's really exciting,"
Peters says. "They'll be inviting people from the community to come in
and talk about the local tradition, and doing exactly what I wanted to
do, which was reunite the community with its own cultural heritage."
                                   --Stephen Steenkamer, Delaware '92