Towboats and Barges
of the Middle Mississippi River Valley

Rivers were America’s first transportation highways and the Mississippi River was one of its major arteries. Long before the towboats and barges one sees on the river today the river was in use moving goods. French settlers in the region south of St. Louis would ship their annual harvest south to New Orleans as did fur trappers and traders of the era. The barge era began with the coming of the steamboats in the mid 19th century.

A barge is a flat-bottomed boat, built mainly for river and canal transport of heavy goods. Originally they were used in the canal systems of the eastern United States and the word “tow” comes from the use of a draft animal walking along the bank of the canal towing the barge. Beginning in the 1840s non-scheduled steamboats often pushed one or more barges to increase cargo capacity. By the 1850s experienced river men found that lashing barges together and pushing them provided more control and allowed more barges to be moved at once.

The practice of pushing barges favored sternwheel propelled boats over sidewheelers and promoted other improvements as well. As a result towboats became a distinct type of boat by 1860. Combustion engines were first used about 1910 but did not become commonplace until the late 1930s, when diesel-powered propeller boats appeared. Today’s towboats range in size from about 117 feet long by 30 feet wide to more than 200 feet long and 45 feet wide and have diesel engines that can produce up to 10,000 horsepower. North of St. Louis on the Upper Mississippi River towboats are usually 3,000 to 5,000 horsepower. As the river becomes deeper and wider below St. Louis the boats are larger because they are allowed to push more barges.

A typical barge carries 1500 tons of cargo, which is 15 times greater than a rail car and 60 times greater than one trailer truck. An average river tow on the Upper Mississippi River is 15 barges consisting of 5 barges tied together and moving 3 abreast. The same load would require a train 3 miles long or line of trucks stretching more than 35 miles. In 1995, 321 million tons of cargos were moved on the Mississippi River. Barges carry many different types of goods with coal, petro-chemical products, and grain constituting most common commodities moved.

Visitors to the Middle Mississippi River Valley can get a close look at these towboats and their barges at the regions locks and dams or at the city of Grafton’s annual Great Rivers Towboat Festival in July.

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