Like many nautical terms, the words “barge” and “scow” are fraught with diverse definitions depending upon timeframes, local usages and individual perspectives and backgrounds. In this way, these words are not unlike “ship,” which in common usage refers to anything big capable of independently making its way across the water. At various times in history, the word ship referred only to sailing vessels with square sails on three masts (as opposed to brigs, barks, barkentines, etc.) while also meaning the collective team of crew and officers of any vessel. Paradoxically, the big steamers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on the Hudson were never called ships; they were always referred to as boats regardless of size or capability.
Historically, the words barge and scow have applied to everything from the flat bottomed sailing barges of the Thames, floating pleasure palaces and funerary boats to the garbage boats of the first half of the twentieth century. Today, these terms generally bring to mind simple floating boxes that carry cargo and are pushed or towed by tugboats. They often suggest craft with flat bottoms and shallow drafts. Let’s take a brief look at what these words have represented here on the Hudson River.
Simple barge-like cargo boats that could be easily built and poled, rowed or sailed appeared in New England and possibly in New York. Some of these, referred to as gundalows, were typically rectangular in plan and featured flat bottoms, inclined ends, retractable masts near the bow and rudders and tillers aft. They were well adapted for carrying lumber and hay and persisted into the late nineteenth century in some rivers.
With the inauguration of canals in New York State, specialized boats based on narrow boat prototypes in Europe were introduced. Some of these found their way to the Hudson River. Flat bottomed, horse-drawn packet boats and line boats carried passengers or a mix of passengers and freight. But with a few notable exceptions, they remained in the canals. However, mule-drawn freight barges often plied the Hudson when they were gathered up in the huge steam tows of the nineteenth century and taken with their cargo to New York. These barges and scows featured specialized designs based on intended trades and the building preferences of yards all across New York and the neighboring states. Barges carrying coal were markedly different from those intended to carry perishable cargoes such as grain. They also differ depending upon the dates of policy changes on the canals (squared bows prohibited due to embankment damage) and the dates of canal expansion projects when the dimensions of the canals and the lock chambers were enlarged allowing deeper and wider barges to grow simultaneously. A number of canalboats were fitted with sail rigs for use when these barges reached the open water of large lakes and rivers where animal towing was no longer possible. Hoodledashers, powered canal barges usually towing a second, unpowered barge, became a feature of the greatly expanded NYS Barge Canal of 1915. One, the Frank A. Lowery, was abandoned in the Rondout in 1953 and remains identifiable. Many canal barges have found their way to the bottom of the Hudson and its tributaries, including a rare bifurcated and hinged Morris Canal barge from the nineteenth century.
Unlike the canals, barges built for use on the Hudson River were less limited in terms of configuration or dimensions. One of the few commonalities among them was the presence of log fenders suspended from the rails along the sides. A large number of box-like barges with living cabins aft were built to carry coal in their holds. Many measured 100 feet in length and 25-30 feet in beam. Some included midship houses for collapsible masts, derrick booms and winches to facilitate loading and unloading. Rectangular scows with inclined ends were built in large numbers to carry deck loads of trap rock, sand, brick and other bulk or non-perishable freight. They often featured deck cabins for their keepers and families and bulkheads fore and aft to contain the material and separate it from the living quarters. Barge hulls were readily used for dredging equipment, pile drivers and derricks used in salvage and construction. Specialized dump scows were built by the New York Sanitation Department with trap bottoms that could release garbage and refuse when outside of New York harbor. The weathered wooden bones of scows and coal barges can be found all along the river as well as in our own Rondout Creek. A prominent derrick barge lies abandoned in Athens.
The railroads were major barge builders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Their ferries, tugs, lighters and barges and car floats (the term used for the long narrow barges that carried rail cars between terminals) were legion and referred to as the “railroad navy.” All of this floating equipment was necessary to move freight from ships to railroad terminals and to move freight and rail cars between terminals and to customers across a metropolitan region divided by rivers, bays and inlets. Among the specialized barges built by the railroads were the hundreds of covered barges built to transport perishable and high value freight throughout the New York area. These distinctive boats with scow-like hulls and boxy cabins with double barn doors on each side made their way up the Hudson on occasion. A number of them found waterfront retirement homes as shad fishing cabins and marina headquarters when no longer useful to the railroads. The Pennsy 399, built in 1942 for the Pennsylvania Railroad, has been restored and is currently docked in the Rondout.
Then there were the early nineteenth century “safety barges” built to transport squeamish passengers afraid of dying in the notorious steamboat explosions or fires that characterized the early years of steam navigation. These were often double decker affairs that looked like steamboats without the paddlewheels or the stacks. A closely related barge type that appears to have grown out of the safety barge model was the hay and produce barge. These craft appear to have proliferated after the Civil War when New York City’s demand for upstate hay became insatiable. Towed in great rafts by paddlewheel towboats and later by tugboats, they were typically double-deckers with shallow draft moulded hulls, tall masts to carry stiffening stays, pilothouses and rudders. In addition to their workaday role carrying hay, livestock and produce, they were popular for inexpensive passenger excursions on Sundays. One example, the Andrew M. Church, built in New Baltimore in 1892, was 139 feet long, carried three decks and was equipped with a rudder and a pilothouse to facilitate tracking and docking. She made her inaugural voyage taking four Sunday School classes to a local picnic ground. Sometimes, these barges were rafted together and towed in pairs or even groups of four. They were still in use carrying hay in the 1930s, and a specialized version, the cattle barge, persisted even longer.
Barges were also built in the nineteenth century for oyster processing and sales, chapels and even municipal bathing pools. Hospital barges appeared in the 1870s initially through the philanthropy of the Starin Line and were towed around New York harbor in good weather to offer fresh air and a change of scenery to invalid patients. Ultimately, the concept evolved into that of a floating clinic set up in disadvantaged communities. The last of these, the 1973 Lila Acheson Wallace is now docked on the Rondout Creek waiting to be repurposed.
Specialized lumber barges also made an appearance with moulded hulls based on the hay barge model. They were built with aft cabins and pilothouses and appear to have carried large deckloads of lumber.
Another distinctive Hudson River barge is the ice barge. Transporting the blocks of ice cut from the river during the winter months and stored in enormous white warehouses along the river shore to urban centers where refrigeration was essential, these barn like barges with rounded bows and sterns carried distinctive windmills to pump out melt water and derrick masts and booms to facilitate loading and unloading.
There is no less variety in the steel barges plying the Hudson River currently. Many are specialized to carry and handle petroleum products, steel recycling, turbines, rock and dry cement. They are typically pushed by diesel tugs but on occasion they are breast towed or towed aft in the nineteenth century manner to facilitate handling and docking. Some are still named for places or members of the respective towing company families and are routinely maintained and painted with pride. Articulated tug and barge combinations (ATBs) represent a relatively recent innovation. They are designed to allow the bow of a tug to precisely fit a notch in the stern of the barge so that when underway, a single unit is created, simplifying handling while avoiding the regulations entailed in designing and operating a comparable motorship.
While less visually interesting than their nineteenth century antecedents, today’s barges carry far more tonnage and operate more safely and efficiently.
Mark Peckham is a trustee of the Hudson River Maritime Museum and a retiree from the New York State Division for Historic Preservation.
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