Barges: Much More than Cargo Carriers

When people hear the word “barge,” they usually think of a cargo carrier, lazily snaking its way down a river.

However, barges are used for much more than hauling freight. Today, these vessels have been transformed into restaurants and even homes!

The History of Barges

By strict definition, a barge is simply a flat-bottomed boat. Barges can either be self-propelled or need to be pushed/pulled by another type of boat. When small barges are on shallower waterways, the crew can help navigate and guide the ship with long poles.  

Barges have a history dating back to ancient times. For the Egyptians, the Nile River served as a major highway. In many sections, the river was too wide for a bridge. Barges were necessary for both transportation and to carry goods. Archaeologists made an exciting discovery when they found a sunken barge off Egypt’s coast in 2000. The ancient barge was right around 90 feet long and is over 2,500 years old! Now dubbed “Ship 17,” the barge was likely involved in trade with Greece and Persia. The vessel would have carried imported and exported goods between the countries. 

Before the Industrial Revolution took hold in the U.S., barges were a necessary way to transport cargo. Barges are perfect for carrying large and heavy items. While travel on a barge is economical, it is also limited to locations where rivers flow. As railways and roads began crisscrossing the country, barges fell out of common use. Trains and vehicles provided more direct options for transporting cargo.  

Barges Today 

While barges may not be as popular as they once were, they are still very much in use. The Calumet River spans from Illinois to Indiana. This vital waterway connects Chicago to Gary, Indiana and barges still carry cargo between the two cities. Tugboat and towboat crews help barges on the Calumet River move along and get to their destination.

Because the Mississippi River spans the entire length of the U.S., it’s also still a vital barge transportation route. On the Mighty Mississippi, as many as 15 barges can be cabled together in what is called a “tow.” A tow of barges is about the size of three football fields! Gravel, salt, cement, and grains are just a few of the items transported by barges on the Mississippi. 

Barges in the City of Lights

Paris, France just might be the world headquarters for repurposed barges! This capital city is home to hundreds of barges that have been converted into everything from houseboats to cafes.

In Paris, rent for an apartment is sky high and real estate is at a premium. People who are looking to live in the city have become creative with housing. It’s not unheard of for barges to be converted into homes. Not only is the price right, but the scenery is beautiful. Word has spread about this more affordable living option. Due to the popularity of houseboats, it’s often difficult to find a mooring to rent. For those lucky enough to have a place to dock, living on the Seine is surely an unmatched experience.

In addition to houseboats, several Parisian restaurants now occupy barges. The upscale Cafe Barge Restaurant is just one such restaurant, located near Notre Dame Cathedral. What could be more quaint than enjoying a glass of wine and French cuisine while floating on the Seine? But these barge restaurants are a popular attraction, so if you’re visiting Paris, it’s best to make reservations so you don’t miss out.

The flexibility and adaptability of barges have helped them stand the test of time. The odds are good that wherever you live, you don’t have to go far to see a barge in action!