The Scow: A Jack-of-all-Water-Trades

Though the term “scow” has come to refer to large, clumsy boats that lack maneuverability — and its reputation likely hasn’t been helped by the word’s resemblance to the bovine animal — the colloquialism doesn’t do justice to this versatile watercraft or its rich and varied history.


Seen primarily in the Great Lakes region of the United States, southern England, and New Zealand, the scow has taken many forms in its couple centuries of history.

What all the variations of the boat have in common is their unique shape, consisting of a flat bottom and rectangular, sloping hull. Aside from that architectural aspect, however, scows can vary tremendously in size and whether they have sails or are designed to be rowed, punted, or pulled.


In the industrial belt of the eastern U.S., the term scow is used to designate a barge that, historically, carried bulk material such as ore to manufacturing facilities along the region’s rivers. Unlike deep-keeled vessels that require deep water and a proper harbor or docking facilities, the flat-bottomed scow has no trouble navigating in the shallow waters of rivers and bays, and can even be beached without issue for loading and unloading. The squared bow also allows for more efficient use of space for packing cargo.

One particular sort of cargo scow has even gone intergalactic: Trekkies might recognize the term “garbage scow” as a starship freighter full of toxic cargo. This ship has its roots firmly on earth, though, as scows have long been used for transporting refuse and waste in coastal areas, even giving rise to controversy over cities using the boats to illegally dump garbage into the sea.


Even before the age of the internet, good inventions traveled quickly around the world. In 1873, a mariner who had spent time in the American Great Lakes had the first scow built in New Zealand, based on the design he’d seen in the States. In honor of its birthplace, this first ship was named Lake Erie.

The scow’s flat design was integral in being able to navigate along the country’s narrow and shallow creeks. Whether carting stone, metal, or even livestock, it was common for the sailors to depend on the tides to help take the boats on and off the beach, taking advantage of low tide for loading and unloading.  


The trustworthy scow got a makeover at the end of the 19th century when a Norwegian boat builder, living in Minnesota, entered a new ship design in one of the local yacht club’s races. John O. Johnson’s 38 foot-long, dish-shaped sailboat looked nothing like the competition but won handily. After this success, he continued to improve upon his design, with his second boat — known as the Minnezitka — becoming the predecessor of the current Class A Scow, and Johnson Boat Works became known as the birthplace of the racing scow.

Racing scows today come in a host of classes depending on their size and design, with different regions and associations recognizing different ones. These classes range from the A Scow, which is the largest and takes a crew of six or seven members, to the butterfly scow, or butterfly dinghy, which is only 12 feet long and is generally sailed by a single person.

For more than a century, the scow has been an indispensable vessel on both sides of the world. Its success in racing has shown that its boxy lines are not to be underestimated, and yet it has remained humble, continuing to do its noble work of transportation up and down waterways where larger, sleeker watercraft cannot go. With assets like these, we can expect to see the scow on the seas — and lakes, rivers, and creeks — for years to come.