Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges (2023)

While towboats and barges are not unique to Pittsburgh, there’s nothing quite like seeing a barge gliding through the early morning river fog. To me, it is one of the more iconic images of our working rivers. The powerful towboat and companion barges synonymous with the brawniness of Joe Magarac as the operation appears to glide effortlessly through rivers that have long been integral in the building of America.

Barges have been used to transport coal and other goods along Pittsburgh’s rivers for well over the past 200 years. The concept of a boat pushing what is essentially a floating box may seem antiquated, but barge transportation is still competitive with other forms of transportation, like railroads and semi-truck trailers. In fact, water transportation for dry bulk goods is one of the cheapest and most energy efficient means of transport.

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The first transport of coal by barge on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers was in the late 1700’s. However, barge travel during this time was not easy. With barges sitting so low in the water, transportation was limited to rainy seasons when rivers were deep enough to keep barges from running aground. During the dry season, when the rivers could become as shallow as a foot, industries dependent upon barge’s cargo were required to use other methods of goods transportation or they shut down.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges (1)

Postcard of “Coal Barge Scene in Pittsburg Harbor” depicting coal barges at the Point with the old Point Bridge and the Smithfield Street Bridge in rear, pre-1919. Collection of Rivers of Steel.

The first barges known as coalboats were powered by the river current and, as their name implies, only transported coal. Coalboats were rectangular wooden vessels that were approximately 100 feet long by 20 feet wide and 6 feet deep. They could carry up to 330 tons of coal and required a river depth of at least 7 feet. Many coalboats often wrecked on the journey, but for those that made the trip, the coal was unloaded and the boat itself dismantled and sold as lumber.

The invention of steam-powered boats was a game changer for river transportation. Coalboats were tied to steamboats for both up and downstream travel. Steamboat operators experimented with both the pushing and pulling of coalboats and ultimately determined that pushing was most effective

Southwestern PA was home to many shipyard companies that supplied the market with steamboats. From 1811-1888 boatyards along the Monongahela River alone produced more than 3,000 steamboats, with notable large-scale operations in Brownsville, PA.

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Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges (2)

United States Steel’s sternwheel towboat, the Homestead, pushing coal or coke. Mid-20th-century image from the collection of Rivers of Steel.

In conjunction with the invention of steam-powered vessels, I would be remiss not to provide a brief history of the engineering efforts to increase the navigability of our waterways. U.S. Congress recognized the commercial value of navigable waterways and in 1824 authorized the first civil works mission assignment to Army Corp of Engineers to remove snags and obstructions from the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Construction of small wing dams and dikes took place on the Ohio River to concentrate flow, but the need for a deeper river channel remained an issue. Additional small-scale lock and dam construction took place in the early 1840’s, but the turmoil of the Civil War stalled further development.

Progress reinstated on waterways improvements shortly after the war. Philadelphia native, William Milnor Roberts, a civil engineer who began his career in 1825 at the age of 16 and later became known as the “Genius of the Ohio River Improvement,” was promoted to the Superintendent of the Survey for the post-war Rivers and Harbors Act that concluded in 1869. Roberts’ career achievements had a major impact on the success of the commercial transportation of goods on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He worked in both the canal and railroad industries and his work on the Harbors Act concluded that the following actions were the most critical improvements necessary for Ohio River navigation:

The general substitution of fleets of barges for the former single steamers, or the plan of floating boxes. It is reasonable to believe that after a while a large proportion of the steamers engaged in freighting will be low-boats, running in connection with barges. Some single steamers will of course still be useful in carrying on the local passenger and freight business between the numerous commercial points along the river…;but the bulk of the freighting will probably be ultimately carried on by means of barges towed as steamers.

There is much more to the history of Roberts, U.S. waterways navigation, and the complications that arose from plans to canalize the rivers and build lock and dams. In fact, the history of waterways navigation in Pittsburgh could fill another blog entry and we will save that for another day.

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Locally however, the first lock and dam built by the Army Corp of Engineers at Davis Island opened to the public in 1885.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges (3)

A modern barge on the Monongahela River. Image by Adam Piscitelli / Primetime Shots, August, 2020.

Modern day barges are still essentially just floating platforms (now made of steel), that carry a variety of commodities and consumer goods such as coal, wheat, barley, corn, petroleum etc. Barge use can be slower but serves to maximize carrying capacity. Barges themselves typically still do not have engines and are still pushed or pulled by a tug or tow boat. Tug or tow boats are usually powered by diesel or sometimes natural gas and even hybrid engines.

Towboats and barges are manned by a crew, which typically consists of 11 members including a captain, a pilot, a chief engineer, an engineer, a mate, a watchman, four deckhands, and a cook. Oftentimes shifts rotate onboard every 6 hours with the captain and pilot taking turns steering the vessel.

To return to the subject of maximizing carrying capacity, a typical 15-barge tow has the same dry cargo capacity as 1,050 Semi Tractor-Trailers. This carrying capacity helps to reduce landside highway traffic as well as emissions from trucks. The drawback to the system is that these barges are limited to the rivers that are navigable; modern day barges require a navigable river channel of at least 9 feet deep to accommodate the draft of a full vessel.

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Fortunately, many navigable waterways lead to some of the most productive states. The Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and their associated connections make up the majority of navigable waters in the United States. This leads to several waterways to choose from considering those waters stretch all the way to the Great Lakes.

Southwestern Pennsylvania’s Iconic Barges (4)

A view of downtown Pittsburgh from the water with recreational boat traffic.

The Port of Pittsburgh itself is the fourth busiest inland port in the nation. According to 2014 data, each lock on the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers handles about 9,000 barges per year. All 200 miles of commercially navigable waterways in southwestern Pennsylvania are in the Port of Pittsburgh District, which encompasses a 12-county region.

In Pittsburgh, some barges have even been repurposed and used as attractions, such as the floating “boardwalk” that was once moored on the Allegheny River from 1991-2008 and was home to bars like Donzi’s and Tequila Willies. That particular barge eventually was shipped in two pieces down the Ohio River to Chattanooga, Tennessee where it was to be used again for an entertainment venue that never came to fruition.

The Port of Pittsburgh is now part of The Marine Highway Program, which promotes the expansion of America’s navigable waters. Some of the public benefits of the program are the job creation, reduction of landside congestion, emissions reduction, and highway maintenance cost reduction.

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The next time you see a towboat muscling a barge full of materials through our beautiful city, I hope you take a moment to appreciate the ingenuity and carrying capacity of barge transportation.


What is special about the Monongahela River? ›

Thanks to the locks and dams being operated by the US Army Corp of Engineers, the Monongahela River became the first river in the United States with complete navigational control. The Monongahela River flows through two Mountaineer Country counties in West Virginia: Marion County and Monongalia County.

Why is the Monongahela River Brown? ›

The Mon has a siltier, sandstone bottom, which is finer sand. When we get heavy rain, it gets stirred up more easily. That's why you get a darker appearance to the Mon river versus the Allegheny's bigger gravel and courser sand.

How big is a Mississippi river barge? ›

Most barges are built for specific cargoes. For dry cargo they average 1,500 tons capacity and measure 195 feet (60 metres) long by 35 feet (10 metres) wide; for liquid cargo the proportions are about 2,500 tons capacity and 295 feet (90 metres) by 50 feet (15 metres).

How fast does a river barge go? ›

Barges typically travel about four miles per hour and travel some 50 miles during a seven-day sail. (Yes, you can drive the entire route in an hour.) All barges moor at night, because they can't get through the locks when they're not manned.

What is the biggest fish in the Monongahela River? ›

The largest walleye was 17 inches long and was captured near the confluence of Dunkard Creek. Smallmouth bass were the most abundant bass species collected in the Monongahela River, along with a few largemouth and spotted bass.
2003Fish SpeciesEmerald shiner
# Collected378
Fish SpeciesEmerald shiner
9 more columns

What is cleanest river in Pittsburgh? ›

The Allegheny was the cleanest of the three rivers, hosting the greatest number of pollution intolerant fish species, indicating a higher environmental quality, which bodes well for the river remaining a major drinking water source for more than 300,000 customers in the region.

Can you eat fish out of the Monongahela River? ›

Recreational fishers can safely eat carp from the Monongahela and Ohio rivers once a month, and channel catfish from the Ohio once a month, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

How deep is the river in Pittsburgh? ›

It's maintained most days between 16 and 17 feet thanks to a system of locks and dams, which exists to help boats navigate the rivers.

Is there an underground river in Pittsburgh? ›

The Fourth River takes its name from a subterranean river beneath Pittsburgh, a city famously sited at the confluence of three rivers: Monongahela, Allegheny, and Ohio. The fourth river, unseen yet indispensable to the city's riverine ecosystem, is actually an aquifer geologists call the "Wisconsin Glacial Flow".

How deep in the water does a loaded barge sit? ›

Based on their draft, the presence of vessels can provide clues to the minimum depth in the immediate area: Small outboard-powered barges and push boats- 2 feet; large tugs- 10 feet; large barges empty- 2 feet; large barges full- 10 feet.

Do barges run at night on the Mississippi River? ›

Much of it is transported in huge barges – each able to carry 1,500 tons. The barges are pushed up and down the river 24 hours a day, and the equivalent of 49 million truckloads of goods are transported on the river every year.

How deep is the water at the mouth of the Mississippi River? ›

How deep is the Mississippi? While mere inches at the headwaters, the river's depth drops dramatically once you get close to its mouth. The deepest point, near Algiers Point in New Orleans, is about 200 feet.

What is a dumb barge? ›

Inland waterways transport (IWT) freight vessel designed to be towed which does not have its own means of mechanical propulsion.

How far can barges go up the Snake River? ›

The Columbia Snake River System is the network of federal dams and locks on the Columbia River and connected water bodies, including the Snake River. This system enables grain barges to carry wheat 360 miles from Lewiston, Idaho, to export elevators as far west as Longview, Wash.

Why do barges push instead of pull? ›

Q. Why do I see so many tugboats pushing barges rather than towing them? A. In terms of power and water resistance, it is more efficient to push rather than pull a barge.

Are there alligator gar in the Allegheny River? ›

The Longnose Gar ranges widely through the Mississippi River watershed and lower Great Lakes. It is also found along the Atlantic Coast north to New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, it has been reported from scattered locations including Lake Erie, and the Allegheny and Ohio River watersheds.

What is the heaviest fish caught in Pennsylvania? ›

52 lb. Juniata River, Huntingdon Co. Catfish, Bullhead (Ameiurus spp.)

What is the biggest carp ever caught in Pennsylvania? ›

It measured by a DNR fisheries biologist at 41.2 inches (104.6 centimeters) long, breaking the record of 41 inches (104.1 centimeters) caught in 1988 by Charles Cook at Stonecoal Lake. The carp weighed 45 pounds (20.4 kilograms), which was just shy of the record of 47 pounds set in 1998 in a Preston County farm pond.

Are there alligators in Pittsburgh rivers? ›

Before the coronavirus pandemic took over the worldwide zeitgeist, there was the season of the loose crocodilian in Pittsburgh. Alligators, crocodiles and the like aren't native to these parts because of the harsh wintry weather, but they're kept as pets by some people.

Can you drink Pittsburgh tap water? ›

For the latest quarter assessed by the U.S. EPA (January 2021 - March 2021), tap water provided by this water utility was in compliance with federal health-based drinking water standards.

What is the most dirty river city in the world? ›

Citarum River

The Citarum is arguably one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Like the Ganges, it serves a big population. Indonesia, the home of the Citarum, may not be as populous as India or China, but it is still in the top league with a population of over 200 million.

What is the biggest fish in the Allegheny River? ›

Pennsylvania's record flathead catfish is a 43-pound, 9-ounce fish caught from the Allegheny River in Allegheny County in 1985. It was landed by Seymore Albramovitz of Pittsburgh.

What does the name Monongahela mean? ›

Etymology. The Unami word Monongahela means "falling banks", in reference to the geological instability of the river's banks.

Are there walleye in the Monongahela River? ›

The PFBC stocks walleye fry and fingerlings, musky and tiger musky fingerlings in each of the six pools of the Monongahela River in PA.
Maxwell Lock & Dam Tailwater17
9 - 19
Braddock Lock & Dam Tailwater10
8 - 30
13 more columns

Are there underground tunnels in Pittsburgh? ›

The Liberty Tunnels (also known as the Liberty Tubes) are a pair of tunnels located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States that allow motorists to travel between the South Hills of Pittsburgh and the city, beneath Mt. Washington.

What is the deepest river in the United States? ›

At a depth of 216 feet (though some sources argue its 202 ft), the Hudson River is the deepest river in the United States. The Hudson River's headwaters are located in the Lake Tear of the Clouds in New York's Adirondack Park. It travels 315 miles from that point to Upper New York Bay.

Why does Pittsburgh have so many tunnels? ›

The tunnels were built to accommodate Pittsburgh's growing suburban population. Pittsburgh's tunnels are considered the gateway to the city. More than 229,000 people drive through the Liberty, Fort Pitt, Squirrel Hill and Stowe tunnels each day.

What does green belt mean in Pittsburgh? ›

Pittsburgh's Wayfarer System

The Wayfarer System divides the city into five color-coded sections. Light blue represents the North Side; green the South Side; Downtown, purple; The Strip District, greenish-brown; and East End, orange.

Where is Pittsburgh hidden graffiti? ›

Welcome to the most colorful place in Pittsburgh, where creative expression in the form of graffiti is not only legal, but welcomed. The Color Park is located in the South Side of Pittsburgh along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail between Liberty Bridge and the 10th Street Bridge.

What native land is Pittsburgh on? ›

The Frick Pittsburgh occupies ancestral lands of the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Osage, and Shawnee peoples. As a place of history and nature, the Frick recognizes the cultural importance of land and the role of cultural institutions in the formation of collective memory.

What is the bottom of a barge called? ›

Bilge – The lowest part of a boat hull that sometimes collects water.

How many gallons of oil is in a barge? ›

Inland tank barge (200–300 feet): 400,000–1.2 million gallons. Panamax container ship that passes through the Panama Canal (960 feet): 1.5–2 million gallons.

What keeps barge afloat? ›

Also called spud barges, these vessels have a squared-off or boxed stern that keeps it afloat under the weight of a crane. There's additional support in the bulkhead and deck frame construction, and the deck of the barge uses specialized crane mats for traction.

Can a cruise ship go up the Mississippi river? ›

Typically, cruises along the Lower Mississippi travel between New Orleans and Memphis, Tennessee, while ships on the Upper Mississippi sail between St. Louis and the Twin Cities.

Do barges drive themselves? ›

A self drive barge is similar to a houseboat. There is no license required, the self-drive vessels cruise about 5 miles per hour and you there is bedding supplied and full kitchen with all the utensils you would need.

Do barges have showers? ›

They have showers (two on larger boats), flush-toilets and a hand basin as well as hot and cold running water with central heating throughout the boat.

Can sharks swim up the Mississippi River? ›

Bull sharks are euryhaline and can thrive in both salt and fresh water. They are known to travel far up rivers, and have been known to travel up the Mississippi River as far as Alton, Illinois, about 1,100 kilometres (700 mi) from the ocean, but few freshwater interactions with humans have been recorded.

Do sharks swim in Mississippi River? ›

Bull sharks have been known to occasionally leave their habitats in the Gulf of Mexico and swim upstream in the Mississippi River.

How far up the Mississippi River has a shark been found? ›

The recent study done by Shell and Gardner officially confirms that bull sharks travel more than 1,000 miles up the Mississippi River. The first confirmed report was in September of 1937 near Alton, Illinois.

What is a spud barge? ›

A spud barge – sometimes called a jack-up barge – is a specialized type of barge commonly used for marine construction operations. The barge is moored by steel shafts or through-deck piling, which are essentially pipes driven right into the soil or sand at the bottom of the water to provide stability.

What is a scow barge? ›

Barges (or scows) are used to transport material that has been excavated by mechanical dredgers or to place other equipment at a dredging site.

What is a luxo barge? ›

The S-Class, which is frequently referred to in motoring circles as a luxo-barge, is being marketed as a vehicle to be driven in, as well as driving yourself, hence the chauffeur trip. It is, so Mercedes says, a car where “luxury meets the highest possible levels of motoring innovation”.

How deep is the deepest part of the Snake River? ›

A long gorge in the Snake River, the Grand Canyon of the Snake River forms part of the Idaho-Oregon boundary. The deepest canyon in North America, it averages 5,500 feet (1,700 meters) in depth for 40 miles (65 kilometers).

How deep is the Snake River aquifer? ›

Depths of these aquifers are generally less than 75 meters below ground surface. Ground water in shallow aquifers generally originates at ground surface, in the form of precipitation, infiltration from irrigated areas, or infiltration from river and stream channels or canals.

How deep is the Snake River at its deepest point? ›

depth of 7,900 feet (2,410m) and is one of the world's deepest gorges. The Snake also runs through 31 counties. The Snake River originates in Yellowstone National Park near the Continental Divide.

How much do tugboat pilots make? ›

FAQ about Becoming a Tugboat Captain

According to Payscale, the average salary for a Tug Boat Captain is $101,840, with varied incomes from $62,000 to $151,000.

Can a tugboat cross the ocean? ›

Most of these boats can also venture out into the ocean, but some are not that strong, like the river tugs. The river tugs are towboats designed to help out in the rivers and canals. They have varied hull types that make it dangerous for these boats to venture into the open Ocean.

What is the most important river in Pennsylvania? ›

Some of the major rivers in Pennsylvania are the Allegheny River, Delaware River, and Susquehanna River. In fact, it's the Delaware River that separates the states of New Jersey and New York from Pennsylvania.

Why was the Battle of Monongahela important? ›

It marked the end of the Braddock expedition, which many had believed contained overwhelming force, to seize the Ohio Country. It awakened many in London to the sheer scale of forces that would be needed to defeat the French and their Indian allies in North America.

Is the Monongahela River the only river that flows north? ›

According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, four of the world's 10 longest rivers flow generally northward: the Nile, the Mackenzie-Peace (in Canada) the Ob and the Lena (in Siberia).

What does the word Monongahela mean? ›

Etymology. The Unami word Monongahela means "falling banks", in reference to the geological instability of the river's banks.

What is the deepest lake in PA? ›

Conneaut Lake /ˈkɒniˌɔːt/ is the largest natural lake in Pennsylvania by surface area.
Conneaut Lake
Average depth29 ft (8.8 m)
Max. depthApprox. 75 ft (23 m)
Islands2 (not named)
SettlementsConneaut Lake, Pennsylvania, Conneaut Lakeshore (CDP)
12 more rows

What is the deepest river in PA? ›

Susquehanna River
Native nameSiskëwahane (Unami)
CountryUnited States
StatesNew York, Pennsylvania, Maryland
32 more rows

What's the deepest pond in Pennsylvania? ›

Cummings Pond
Surface area43.8 acres (17.7 ha)
Max. depth10 feet (3.0 m)
Water volume46,000,000 US gallons (170,000 m3)
Surface elevation1,191 feet (363 m)
10 more rows

How many British died in the Battle of Monongahela? ›

The Battle of the Monongahela cost the British 456 killed and 422 wounded. French and Native American casualties are not known with precision but are speculated to have been around 30 killed and wounded. The survivors of the battle retreated back down the road until reuniting with Dunbar's advancing column.

Who was the hero of the Monongahela? ›

Of the 1,459 men in Braddock's expedition, 977 were wounded or killed—including sixty-three officers. Although technically not in command, Washington earned hero status for saving the British army from complete destruction at The Battle of Monongahela.

What fort did the French build where the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers meet? ›

Fort Pitt was a fort built by British forces between 1759 and 1761 during the French and Indian War at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, where the Ohio River is formed in western Pennsylvania (modern day Pittsburgh).

What is the only river in the US that flows backwards? ›

Chicago River Mouth

As the city grew, fear of disease spread, and officials decided to permanently reverse the river's flow, sending its polluted water to the Mississippi River instead. A 28-mile-long canal was built between the Chicago River and the rivers that drain into the Mississippi.

What is the only river that flows backwards? ›

Did you know? Illinois is home to the only river in the world that flows backwards. The Chicago River, known mainly for the different colors it is dyed to celebrate different events and holidays, has been a hallmark of Chicago since the earliest days of the city.

What are the only two rivers in the world that flow north? ›

Johns River and the Nile River are the only two rivers in the world that flow north." In this editorial he explains that there are hundreds of rivers that flow north and; in fact, the St. Johns River flows south as well.

What does Nebby mean in Pittsburgh? ›

Nebby. Definition: Nosy, snoopy, inquisitive. Used as an adjective or noun.

What does yinz mean in Pennsylvania? ›

What does yinz mean? Yinz is a Pittsburgh equivalent to y'all. It is used to address two or more people as a second-person plural pronoun.

Why does Pittsburgh say yinz? ›

The answer is simple—immigration. The Scottish and Irish were the first to arrive in Western Pennsylvania in the 1700s, and they brought with them the English second-person plural "you ones." Over time, the word evolved into the endearing pronoun "yinz," of which Pittsburghers are so proud.


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