Towboats and Barges

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TOWBOATS AND BARGES. The deficiencies of railroad transportation during World War I led to the Transportation Act of 1920, which created the Inland Waterways Corporation (1924) and its Federal Barge Line. The completion of the nine-foot channel of the Ohio River in 1929 was followed by similar improvements on the Mississippi and its tributaries and the Gulf Intra-Coastal Canals. Each improvement marked a giant step by the U.S. Army Engineers (Corps of Engineers) in promoting inland waterways development. Private capital followed these improvements with heavy investments in towboats and barges.

In the years before World War II, towboat power soared steadily from 600 to 1,200 to 2,400. The shift from steam to diesel engines cut crews from twenty or more on steam towboats to an average of eleven to thirteen on diesels. By 1945 fully 50 percent of the towboats were diesel; by 1955, the figure was 97 percent. Meanwhile the paddlewheel had given way to the propeller, the single propeller to the still-popular twin propeller; the triple propeller became fairly common during the 1960s. In 1974 the Valley Line added the 10,500-horsepower triplescrew W. J. Barta to its fleet of twenty-one towboats and 750 barges. Capable of handling forty barges with a capacity of 50,000 tons, the W. J. Barta transported twenty-two times the record-breaking 9,266 cotton bales carried by the Henry Frank in 1881. By the end of the twentieth century, 10,500-horsepower towboats were common on the Mississippi.

The pilothouse is the key to modern towboat expansion. Electronics are everywhere: main control panels, radar, computers, communication systems, and circuit television scanners that monitor the entire boat for the pilot, who can communicate with pilots of approaching boats. The pilot is in telephone communication with the numerous marine services that have sprung up to cut out barges from a tow while it is under way, thus saving time and money. Some towboats have thrusters (like the bowboats of rafting days) that aid the pilots in passing other large tows, negotiating sharp bends, passing bridges, or entering locks.

Traffic on the Mississippi system climbed from 211 million short tons to more than 330 million between 1963 and 1974. The growth in river shipping did not abate in the final quarter of the century. Traffic along the Upper Mississippi rose from 54 million tons in 1970 to 112 million tons in 2000. The change from riveted to welded barges, the creation of integrated barges, and the innovation of double-skinned barges have led to improved economy, speed, and safety. Shipping on Mississippi barges became substantially less expensive than railroad transport, but at a cost to taxpayers. Barge traffic is the most heavily subsidized form of transport in the United States. A report in 1999 revealed that fuel taxes cover only 10 percent of the annual $674 million that the U.S. Army

Corps of Engineers spends building and operating the locks and dams of the Mississippi River.


Clay, Floyd M. History of Navigation on the Lower Mississippi. Washington, D.C., 1983.

Petersen, William J. Towboating on the Mississippi. Washington, D.C.: National Waterways Study, U.S. Water Engineer Water Resource Support Center, Insitute for Water Resources, 1983.

Willliam J.Petersen/a. r.

See alsoBargemen ; Engineers, Corps of ; Inland Lock Navigation ; Inland Waterways Commission ; Lakes-to-Gulf Deep Waterway ; Mississippi River ; River Navigation ; Waterways, Inland .


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barge / bärj/ • n. a flat-bottomed boat for carrying freight, typically on canals and rivers, either under its own power or towed by another.• v. 1. [intr.] move forcefully or roughly: we can't just barge into a private garden. ∎  (barge in) intrude or interrupt rudely or awkwardly: sorry to barge in on your cozy evening.2. [tr.] convey (freight) by barge.


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1. Coping on a gable, so a barge-stone is one of the stones forming the raked top of a gable.

2. Projecting ledge or drip at the base of a chimney following the line of the pitched roof, also called a water-table.


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barge long heavy boat XII. — (O)F. barge, poss. :- medL. *barica, f. Gr. bâris Egyptian boat. Cf. BARQUE.


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BARGES. SeeTowboats and Barges .