Barge often refers to a flat-bottomed inland waterway vessel which does not have its own means of mechanical propulsion. The first modern barges were pulled by tugs, but on inland waterways, most are pushed by pusher boats, or other vessels. The term barge has a rich history, and therefore there are many other types of barges.
"Barge" is attested from 1300, from Old French barge, from Vulgar Latin barga. The word originally could refer to any small boat; the modern meaning arose around 1480. Bark "small ship" is attested from 1420, from Old French barque, from Vulgar Latin barca (400 AD). The more precise meaning of Barque as "three-masted sailing vessel" arose in the 17th century, and often takes the French spelling for disambiguation. Both are probably derived from the Latin barica, from Greek baris "Egyptian boat", from Coptic bari "small boat", hieroglyphic Egyptian
and similar ba-y-r for "basket-shaped boat". By extension, the term "embark" literally means to board the kind of boat called a "barque".
In Great Britain a merchant barge was originally a flat bottomed merchant vessel for use on navigable rivers. Most of these barges had sails. For traffic on the River Severn the barge was described as: The lesser sort are called barges and frigates, being from forty to sixty feet in length, having a single mast and square sail, and carrying from twenty to forty tons burthen. The larger vessels were called trows. On the River Irwell there was reference to barges passing below Barton Aqueduct with their mast and sails standing. Barges on the Thames were called west country barges.
During the Industrial Revolution, a substantial network of narrow canals was developed in Great Britain from 1750 onward. These new British canals had locks of only 7 feet (2.1 m) wide. This led to the development of the narrowboats, which had a beam of no more than 6 feet 10 inches (2.08 m). It was soon realized that the narrow locks were too limiting. Later locks were therefore doubled in width to 14 feet (4.3 m). This led to the development of the widebeam.
The narrowboats were initially also known as barges, but only a very few had sails, unlike earlier vessels. From the start, most of the new canals were constructed with an adjacent towpath along which draft horses walked, towing the barges. These types of canal craft are so specific that on the British canal system the term 'barge' was not used to describe narrowboats and widebeams. Narrowboats and widebeams are still used on canals, now engine-powered.
On the British canal system, the Thames sailing barge, and Dutch barge and unspecified other styles of barge, are still known as barges. The term Dutch barge is nowadays often used to refer to an accommodation ship, but originally refers to the slightly larger Dutch version of the Thames sailing barge.
The people who moved barges were known as lightermen. Poles are used on barges to fend off other nearby vessels or a wharf. These are often called 'pike poles'. The long pole used to maneuver or propel a barge has given rise to the saying "I wouldn't touch that [subject/thing] with a barge pole."
In the United Kingdom the word barge had many meanings by the 1890s, and these varied locally. On the Mersey a barge was called a 'Flat', on the Thames a Lighter or barge, and on the Humber a 'Keel'. A Lighter had neither mast nor rigging. A keel did have a single mast with sails. Barge and lighter were used indiscriminately. A local distinction was that any flat that was not propelled by steam was a barge, although it might be a sailing flat.
The term Dumb barge was probably taken into use to end the confusion. The term Dumb barge surfaced in the early nineteenth century. It first denoted the use of a barge as a mooring platform in a fixed place. As it went up and down with the tides, it made a very convenient mooring place for steam vessels. Within a few decades, the term dumb barge evolved, and came to mean: 'a vessel propelled by oars only'. By the 1890s Dumb barge was still used only on the Thames.
By 1880 barges on British rivers and canals were often towed by steam tugboats. On the Thames, many dumb barges still relied on their poles, oars and the tide. Others dumb barges made use of about 50 tugboats to tow them to their destinations. While many coal barges were towed, many dumb barges that handled single parcels were not.
In the United States a barge was not a sailing vessel by the end of the 19th century. Indeed, barges were often created by cutting down (razeeing) sailing vessels. In New York this was an accepted meaning of the term barge. The somewhat smaller scow was built as such, but the scow also had its sailing counterpart the sailing scow.
The innovation that led to the modern barge was the use of iron barges towed by a steam tugboat. These were first used to transport grain and other bulk products. From about 1840 to 1870 the towed iron barge was quickly introduced on the Rhine, Danube, Don, Dniester, and rivers in Egypt, India and Australia. Many of these barges were built in Great Britain.
Nowadays 'barge' generally refers to a dumb barge. In Europe, a Dumb barge is: An inland waterway transport freight vessel designed to be towed which does not have its own means of mechanical propulsion. In America, a barge is generally pushed.
Barges are used today for transporting low-value bulk items, as the cost of hauling goods that way is very low. Barges are also used for very heavy or bulky items; a typical American barge measures 195 by 35 feet (59.4 m × 10.7 m), and can carry up to about 1,500 short tons (1,400 t) of cargo. The most common European barges measure 251 by 37 feet (76.5 m × 11.4 m) and can carry up to about 2,450 tonnes (2,700 short tons).
As an example, on June 26, 2006, in the US a 565-short-ton (513 t) catalytic cracking unit reactor was shipped by barge from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma to a refinery in Pascagoula, Mississippi. Extremely large objects are normally shipped in sections and assembled after delivery, but shipping an assembled unit reduces costs and avoids reliance on construction labor at the delivery site, which in the case of the reactor was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. Of the reactor's 700-mile (1,100 km) journey, only about 40 miles (64 km) were traveled overland, from the final port to the refinery.
Self-propelled barges may be used for traveling downstream or upstream in placid waters; they are operated as an unpowered barge, with the assistance of a tugboat, when traveling upstream in faster waters. Canal barges are usually made for the particular canal in which they will operate.
Unpowered vessels—barges—may be used for other purposes, such as large accommodation vessels, towed to where they are needed and stationed there as long as necessary. An example is the Bibby Stockholm.
...never was land so easily and cheaply in the grasp of the capitalist as it is now, if he chose to put out his hand, and yet there is not a capitalist in his senses who would touch it with a barge pole.