The West Coast of the United States has many busy container ports familiar to most of us, such as the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Oakland, the Port of Portland, and the Port of Seattle. The farthest inland seaport on the West Coast sits 465 miles upriver from the Pacific, in Lewiston, Idaho.
The Port of Lewiston gives offshore market access to farms along the Snake River, part of one of the most valued shipping routes in the US, the Columbia-Snake River System. The navigable portion of the system stretches from Lewiston to Astoria, Oregon, where the Columbia empties into the Pacific. It ranks first in the country for the transportation and export of American wheat.
The largest river in the Pacific Northwest, in fact, is the Columbia, with its headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Its drainage basin covers nearly all of Idaho and large parts of British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Its biggest tributary is the Snake River, which flows along southern Idaho and makes a northward turn to go up the Oregon border and enter southern Washington. It joins the Columbia River near Pasco, Washington.
The Columbia-Snake River System is a highway for barges carrying wheat from one of America’s breadbaskets, the Palouse Hills of Idaho and Washington. Truck drivers bring the wheat from farms to grain terminals at the Port of Lewiston, where workers load the wheat into barges that carry it to the Port of Portland to be transferred to oceangoing ships.
Barges take longer to transport goods than alternatives, but they are without a doubt the most fuel-efficient way to move grain, as a barge holds the equivalent of 16 railcars or 70 trucks. Barges keep thousands of trucks off the major highways surrounding the Columbia-Snake River System every year and keep rail rates competitive. Shipping by barge is one of the oldest ways of getting goods all over the country.
The first barges in the US were basically box-shaped floats that needed a “push.” Some could be quite large and carried substantial loads. Traveling downstream was fairly easy; you flowed with the current, poling and rowing when necessary.
Barges have since become flat-bottomed boats that are typically 200 feet long and 35 feet wide. A single barge or a group of barges lashed together make up the “tow.” In some cases, such as on the Mississippi River, a tow might consist of 15 barges, grouped three abreast by five barges long. A tow like this carries the equivalent of 1,050 trucks. A towboat, steered by a captain and pilot, pushes the barges to their destination.
You might wonder as I did, “Why does a boat push the barges along?” In the way an outboard motor provides propulsion for a smaller boat, the towboat provides the rear propulsion for the barge tow. Workers attach cables to the stern of the towboat from the corners of the barge tow. Once the towboat gets going it acts as a rudder, with the pilot carefully steering the barges along the river.
It takes great skill to thread a barge tow through the locks of some waterways. River pilots get it done successfully every day.
Barges on rivers all over the US carry nearly every kind of open and covered dry cargo, such as coal, steel, gravel, lumber, grain, coffee, or soybeans. Some of them carry liquid cargo like petroleum, chemicals, or fertilizer. And some carry one-of-a-kind cargo, like the fuel tank NASA transported from New Orleans through the Panama Canal to California.
The size of a towboat crew will vary from place to place, but typically a crew are seven people: the captain, the pilot, two senior deckhands, two junior deckhands, and a cook. Work schedules might vary as well, but a typical rotation might be “7 days on/7 days off.” Or “14 days on/7 days off.” A 12-hour work day will have a “6 hours on/6 hours off” rotation.
One of the main duties for a deckhand is attaching barges together with rigging (“building tow”), a physically demanding and time-consuming job. His other duties are transferring rigging, handling lines, shifting barges, dropping off or picking up barges, checking the tow, minor engine room work (oil changes, greasing), and moving and operating portable pumps to pump ballast water out of a barge as cargo is loaded.
In addition there are tankermen who load and discharge petroleum products (mainly fuel) on barges.
You live on the boat for the duration of your hitch, so your other duties are standard housekeeping, painting, chipping, and in some cases cooking. The work schedules take a toll on family life, and you’ll hear deckhands declaring every now and then, “After this year, I’m done!” But a lot of them love what they do. Boatmen have an old saying: once you wear out a pair of work boots on the river, you’re here to stay.
Deckhands work both union and non-union, and in some parts of the US, there is no union contract for most riverboat jobs. But not on the West Coast. Boatmen working the Columbia-Snake River System – captains, mates, pilots, engineers, and deckhands – are union members, with deckhands represented by the Inlandboatmen’s Union of the Pacific. The IBU has been bargaining on behalf of boatmen since 1918.