A barge is a flat-bottomed boat, built mainly for river and canal transport of heavy goods. Some barges are not self-propelled and need to be towed by tugboats or pushed by towboats. Canal barges, towed by draft animals on an adjacent towpath, contended with the railway in the early industrial revolution, but were outcompeted in the carriage of high-value items due to the higher speed, falling costs, and route flexibility of rail.
Barges are used today for low-value bulk items, as the cost of hauling goods by barge is very low. Barges are also used for very heavy or bulky items; a typical barge measures 195 by 35 feet (59.4 m × 10.6 m), and can carry up to 1,500 tons of cargo. As an example, on June 26, 2006, a 565-ton catalytic cracking unit reactor was shipped by barge from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma to a refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Extremely large objects are normally shipped in sections and assembled onsite, but shipping an assembled unit reduced costs and avoided reliance on construction labor at the delivery site (which in this case was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina). Of the reactor's 700-mile (1,100 km) journey, only about 40 miles were traveled overland, from the final port to the refinery.
Self-propelled barges may be used as such when traveling downstream or upstream in placid waters; they are operated as an unpowered barge, with the assistance of a tugboat, when traveling upstream in faster waters. Canal barges are usually made for the particular canal in which they will operate.
Many barges, primarily Dutch Barges, which were originally designed for carrying cargo along the canals of Europe, are no longer large enough to compete in this industry with larger newer vessels. Many of these barges have been renovated and are now used as luxury Hotel Barges carrying holiday makers along the same canals they once carried grain or coal along.
Towed or otherwise unpowered barges in the USA
In primitive regions today and in all pre-development (lacking highways or railways) regions worldwide in times before industrial development and highways, barges were the predominant and most efficient means of inland transportation in many regions of the world. This holds true even today, for many areas of the world. In such pre-industrialized, or poorly developed infrastructure regions, many barges are purpose-designed to be powered on waterways by long slender poles — thereby becoming known on American waterways as poleboats as the extensive west of North America was settled using the vast tributary river systems of the Mississippi drainage basin. Poleboats utilize muscle power of "walkers" along the sides of the craft pushing against a pole against the streambed, canal, or lake bottom to move the vessel where desired. In settling the American west it was generally faster to navigate down River from Brownsville, Pennsylvania, to the Ohio River confluence with the Mississippi and then pole up river against the current to St Louis than to travel overland on the rare primitive dirt roads for many decades after the American revolution.
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