What Is a Barge?

Put into basic terms, a barge is a boat (usually with a flat bottom) that is primarily used to transport goods through rivers and canals. While these boats can sometimes be self-propelled and move on their own, barges are almost always pulled by a tow or a tugboat. During the beginning stages of the Industrial Revolution, barges were even pulled by draft animals who moved parallel to the water on a towpath.

While animals are no longer involved, these flat-bottomed boats are commonly used in modern shipping, primarily because hauling by barge is easy and cost-effective. These vessels are an especially attractive option in cases where the cargo is heavy and/or bulky, as a barge, which is usually around 195 long and 35 feet wide, can carry up to 1,500 tons. Some newer barges are even larger, measuring up to 209 feet long and 50 feet wide, and can carry twice the tonnage. A barge can carry anything from oil products to sand and soil to a 565-ton catalytic cracking unit reactor, which was the largest single object ever transported by barge through the Tulsa Port of Catoosa at the time, in 2006. 

Barges play a vital role in the U.S. transportation and logistics infrastructure, providing an efficient means to move goods, especially in areas where road or rail might not be feasible or cost-effective.

What Are the Different Types of Barges?

A barge is a workhorse of the maritime world, prioritizing function and cargo capacity over speed and onboard amenities. Its design and operational characteristics make it uniquely suited for its transportation and work roles in various maritime settings. There are different types of barges suited for varying purposes.

While there are many types of barges, some of the most commonly used in the U.S. include:

  • Dry Cargo Barges: These are designed to carry dry bulk commodities like coal, grain, sand, gravel, and steel.
  • Tank Barges: These transport liquid cargoes like petrochemicals, fertilizers, refined products, oil products, and more.
  • Dump Scows: Used in dredging operations, these barges transport and dump dredged material at disposal sites.
  • Car-Ferry Barges: These are designed to transport vehicles, including cars and railway cars, across waterways.
  • Double-Hull Barges: When transporting oil or chemicals, the double-hull design adds a layer of protection.
  • Deck Barges: These are flat-topped barges that can carry heavy equipment and cargo. Deck barges often serve as mobile work platforms for construction projects or other marine-based operations.
  • Hopper Barges: These barges are designed with a large open hold, often with a bottom that can open. Hopper barges are typically used to transport and dump materials like dredged material or grain.
  • Spud Barges: Equipped with vertical poles (spuds) that can be anchored to the seabed, these barges are stabilized during operations, making them ideal for dredging or construction projects.
  • Crane Barges (or Derricks): Fitted with cranes or derricks, these barges are used for heavy lifting tasks on or near the water, like placing bridge sections or performing underwater construction.
  • Accommodation Barges: Designed to house workers on projects away from shore, these barges provide living quarters, dining areas, and other amenities for crew members as needed.
  • Keyway Barges: Used in the construction of tunnels and bridges, these unique barges are designed and built with slots allowing large pillars or columns to be inserted.
  • Jack-Up Barge: More commonly known as a jack-up rig, these vessels typically self-elevate and are used as either exploratory drilling platforms or to service other ships involved in offshore oil and gas activity.

Barge Operation in the United States

Barges have origins in ancient civilizations like Egypt, where they were essential for Nile transport. This utility was echoed by the Mesopotamians, Greeks, and Romans in their river systems, with the latter even engineering canals for barge efficiency. Europe's Middle Ages saw barge prominence in trade rise, with landmarks like France's Canal du Midi in the 17th century and China's Grand Canal connecting major rivers. 

The Industrial Revolution further propelled barge use, with England expanding canals and introducing steam-powered barges. In the 20th century U.S., the Interstate Inland Waterway system highlighted the nation's reliance on barges for transporting bulk goods. Modern barges have evolved with specialized designs, emphasizing their importance in maritime transport due to their cost-effectiveness, environmental advantages, and cargo capacity.

According to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publication, Waterborne Transportation Lines of the United States, there were 38,011 U.S. flagged barges in operation in internal waterways and on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific Coasts in 2019. 

Barges are exceptionally efficient, carrying more than 15 times the amount a rail car could carry and up to 60 times more than a single trailer truck can carry; however, they often do not work alone. Barges are often tied together in a flotilla and pulled or pushed along by a tug or towboat. On the inland rivers of the U.S., particularly on the Mississippi, it's common for towboats to push flotillas of 15 to 40 barges. The barges are usually arranged in multiple rows. On narrower rivers, the size of the tow is often reduced to a grouping of 3 to 6 barges due to navigational limitations. In canals, the constraints are even tighter, typically accommodating only one or two barges because of the restricted width and lock sizes.

Connecting these barges in a tow involves the use of heavy steel cables and specialized rigging, ensuring they remain secure during their journey. The process of navigating these large flotillas, especially in challenging river systems with currents and bends, demands significant training and skill.

Barge Accidents

Like other maritime environments, barges present certain workplace risks. Accidents on barges can result from slips and falls, faulty vessel equipment, insufficient crew training, tow line mishaps, and line handling injuries, among other offshore occurrences. To learn more of the hazards faced by offshore workers, visit our Barge & Tugboat Accidents page.

For more information and a free review of your maritime injury claim, contact Arnold & Itkin.

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