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The River Gains New Life
Milestones Vol 16 No 1 Spring 1991

In 1917, as in 1942, existing transportation facilities were insufficient to meet military demands. So the govemment rediscovered its inland waterways. The Federal Barge Line was organized, and the U.S. Army engineers were given the job of keeping the rivers in shape, a job they've been working at ever since. As a result the rivers continued to serve as an important freight highway in the years of peace and as an indispensable adjunct to rail and highway in Lime of war. In relieving the petroleum famine in the East, the towboats were as necessary to the nation's welfare as they had been in their most fabled days. ... incidentally, the term "tow" is a misnomer. Boats don't pull tows; they push them. Whether a steam stem-wheeler or a stream-lined diesel job, each towboat is equipped with a bow constructed and fendered especially for nosing a string of barges ahead of it. This makes for greater navigability in winding channels. Instead of a loose line of barges trailing behind, the pilot has a tight-knit island of barges, all cabled securely togethcr, before his eyes at all times. He can steer them, wrap them around hairpin bends, nuzzle them through narrow and treacherous stretches.

It's no small trick, nevertheless, this maneuvering of a string of barges. The average barge is 195 feet long, 35 feet wide, and draws 8 feet of water when loaded. Six, eight, or ten barges are tied together, two abreast, an arrangement that gives the master of the towboat command of a marine unit ranging from 600 to 1,000 feet long - longer than most large ocean liners.

The towboats are suited to their job. The river still abounds with the old-timers, the puffing, steam-powered stern-wheelers that still have some advantages in shallow water. But the newer boats are diescl-driven, with two independently operated power plants tuming twin 4-foot propellers.

Speed is not one of the long points of river tows. When loaded, few ever exceed 4 miles an hour up stream. The run from New Orleans to Pittsburgh, for example, takes twenty-four days. Since the sixtecri-man crew is thus in for long voyages - always in sight of land but seldom able to set foot on it - the boats are designed to serve as comfortable homes. The living quarters are roomier than those found on many deep-sea ships.