Do you love boats? There are lots of fun boats you can enjoy on a lake, such as paddleboats, canoes and kayaks. It can also be a lot of fun to stay on a houseboat on vacation or to water ski behind a speed boat.
Some boats are used mainly for work, though. Have you ever seen those long, flat boats that carry large loads slowly down the river? Those are called barges, and they perform an important function in moving many types of goods from one place to another.
Long ago, before good roads and reliable automobile transportation had been invented, rivers were the highways of the world. The flowing waters allowed people to travel and transport goods easily. Barges declined in popularity with the building of extensive railroad systems.
Large, flat-bottomed boats were created to move large, heavy loads of supplies. Today, some barges have engines that propel them up and down rivers, while others must be pushed or pulled by tow boats that most people call tugboats.
When you see a tugboat moving a barge, it will usually be pushing a whole set of barges connected together. Together, the set of barges is called “the tow" and can consist of many barges linked together. For example, the average barge tow contains 15 barges and can carry as much freight as a freight train three miles long or a line of semi-trucks 35 miles long!
Today, most barges carry heavy or bulky items that would be difficult to transport any other way. Some typical items you might find on barges include coal, grain, oil, chemicals, trash, recyclable materials, sand, gravel, timber, iron ore and other minerals.
Although there are many competing modes of transporting goods available today, barges still do a lot of work. There are about 30,000 barges on U.S. waterways today. They transport about $1 billion in goods each year, which is about 15% of all U.S. freight.