Mississippi River Barges

The earliest super-highway for transporting goods in America was its rivers. The Mississippi River was a major artery in this system. French settlers south of St. Louis would float their harvest down the river as did fur trappers and traders. The barge era began when steam boats came about in the mid-19th century.

Here at Tom Sawyer’s RV Park in West Memphis, we see and hear barges on the Mississippi River daily. I’m fascinated by them and did a little research. In an earlier post, I described a raft of barges pushed by a tug boat. My terminology was incorrect. When barges are lashed together, they are called a tow. I think this name comes from early barges that were towed along canals by draft animals. The boat, which has a flat bow plate and is tied to the back of the barge tow, is called a tow boat – even though it pushes the barges.

The standard barge is 195 feet long and 35 feet wide. It can draft 9 feet of water and has a capacity of 1500 tons. Some modern barges used in the lower Mississippi are 290 feet long and 50 feet wide. The lower Mississippi is the portion downriver from St. Louis. Upriver from St. Louis, the Mississippi isn’t as deep and wide. It also has locks that restrict the size of tows in the upper Mississippi.

Multiple barges are lashed together to create a tow. The payload usually consists of grain, coal or petro-chemicals in special tanker barges. This is a very economical way to transport goods downriver.

The tow boats range from 35 to 200 feet in length and 21 to 56 feet wide. They can be powered by diesel engines ranging from 600 to 11,000 horsepower. When I see a tow going downriver, I can hear the diesel engines in the tow boat as it cruises along. The Mississippi River is such a large body of water here in Memphis that it appears to flow lazily. This is deceptive. When you see a piece of driftwood floating in the current, you can see how fast the water is actually moving. Transporting a load downriver, the tow boat isn’t working very hard – it’s turning the propellers just fast enough to maintain control over the rudder.

Coming back upriver is a different story. Once offloaded, the empty barges need to be pushed back upriver to pick up another load. At least I think they’re empty, I haven’t found any reference to shipping goods upriver. Going upriver, the tow boats are running hard. They sound like a freight train running at full speed, but they are only covering a few knots per hour. I can hear one going upriver right now. It will be within sight and ear shot for the next 20 minutes.

28 barge tow - six barges long and four deep lashed together

28-barge tow – six barges long and four deep lashed together

Tow making the turn up river

Tow making the turn upriver

Once the barges in the tow are lashed together and the tow boat is connected to the rear, it becomes one large vessel controlled by the tow boat. It’s amazing to watch these things make the turn in the channel upriver from the RV park.

While Donna was out walking yesterday, she sent me a text message telling me I ought to check out the coach and trailer getting ready to pull out from a riverfront site. I walked over to the riverfront area and saw a beautiful, 45-foot Millenium Coach built on a Prevost chassis. This million-plus-dollar coach was pulling a large stacker trailer that had to be 13 feet high. I don’t know what he had in there, but this type of trailer typically has a hydraulic lift that can raise a car, making room for another underneath. Or it can be configured with a platform with work benches and storage that can be lifted and a car stowed underneath for travel.

Millenium Coach with large stacker trailer

Millenium Coach with large stacker trailer

What a set-up! Triple-axle stacker trailers typically weigh in the neighborhood of 9,000 pounds empty, so you need a large, powerful coach with heavy towing capacity to utilize one. Very few coaches have that much capacity. A Prevost chassis is usually outfitted with 20,000 pounds of towing capacity. Our coach is limited to 10,000 pounds. Many coaches only have four or five thousand pounds of towing capacity.

Millenium Coach with stacker heading out

Millenium Coach with stacker heading out

When I grow up, I want one of these!

Last evening, I grilled turkey burgers loaded with diced green chiles, onions, cilantro and spices. Donna topped it with shredded Mexican cheeses and guacamole and served it over spring mix greens with grilled zucchini on the side. The zucchini was seasoned the same way we had it two nights ago with salt and lemon zest. We dined al fresco at the picnic table. A healthy, delicious and nutritious meal.

Turkey/green chili burger topped with cheese and guacamole

Green chile turkey burger topped with cheese and guacamole

It’s going to be hot today. We expect the temperature to reach 90 degrees. Donna headed out for a bike ride at 8:30 to try to beat the heat. The humidity yesterday was 89% and we expect the same today.

This afternoon, I have a reservation for a tour of the Gibson guitar factory in Memphis, birthplace of my ES339 guitar.



6 thoughts on “Mississippi River Barges

  1. Maureen Scott

    Hi Mike and Donna I just want to thank you. .again for sharing your adventures. I enjoy reading about all the projects that you deal with Mike .Donna I am sure you are so glad your husband is so handy!! The blog on the riverboats very interesting! Continue with your safe travels and thanks again! Maureen

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