Barges are used today for low-value bulk items, as the cost of hauling goods by barge is very low. Barges are also used for very heavy or bulky items; a typical barge measures 195 by 35 feet (59.4 m × 10.6 m), and can carry up to 1,500 tons of cargo. As an example, on June 26, 2006, a 565-ton caalytic cracking unit reactor was shipped by barge from the Tulsa Port of Catoosa in Oklahoma to a refinery in Pascagoula Missisipp.
Extremely large objects are normally shipped in sections and assembled onsite, but shipping an assembled unit reduced costs and avoided reliance on construction labor at the delivery site (which in this case was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina). Of the reactor's 700-mile (1,100 km) journey, only about 40 miles were traveled overland, from the final port to the refinery.
Self-propelled barges may be used as such when 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.
Many barges, primarily Dutch Barges, which were originally designed for carrying cargo along the canals of Europe, are no longer large enough to compete in this industry with larger newer vessels. Many of these barges have been renovated and are now used as luxury Hotel Barges carrying holiday makers along the same canals they once carried grain or coal along.
Towed or otherwise unpowered barges in the USA
In primitive regions today and in all pre-development (lacking highways or railways) regions worldwide in times before industrial development and highways, barges were the predominant and most efficient means of inland transportation in many regions of the world. This holds true even today, for many areas of the world.
A towboat pushing a barge on the Chicago River
In such pre-industrialized, or poorly developed infrastructure regions, many barges are purpose-designed to be powered on waterways by long slender poles — thereby becoming known on American waterways as poleboats as the extensive west of North America was settled using the vast tributary river systems of the Mississippi drainage basin. Poleboats utilize muscle power of "walkers" along the sides of the craft pushing against a pole against the streambed, canal, or lake bottom to move the vessel where desired. In settling the American west it was generally faster to navigate down River from Brownsville, Pennsylvania, to the Ohio River confluence with the Mississippi and then pole up river against the current to St Louis than to travel overland on the rare primitive dirt roads for many decades after the American evolution.
Once the New York Central and Pennsylvania Railroads reached Chicago, that time dynamic changed, and American poleboats became less common, relegated to smaller rivers and more remote streams. On that Mississippi riverine system today, including that of other sheltered waterways, industrial barge trafficking in bulk raw materials such as coal, coke, timber, iron ore and other minerals is extremely common in the developed world using huge cargo barges that connect in groups and trains-of-barges in ways which allow cargo volumes and weights which would astonish pioneers of modern barge systems and methods in the Victorian era.
Such barges are not self-propelled and need to be towed by tugboats or pushed by towboats. Canal barges, towed by draft animals on an waterway adjacent towpath were of fundamental importance in the early industrial revolution, whose major early engineering projects were efforts to build viaducts, aqaducts and especially canals to fuel and feed the raw materials to the nascent factories being born in the early industrial takeoff, and take their goods to the ports and cities for distribution.
The towboat Herbert P. Brake, of New York, pushes a new barge East on the Erie Canal in Fairport N.Y.on Saturday morning, October 27, 2007
The barge and canal system contended favorably with the railways in the early industrial revolution prior to around the 1850s – 60s — for example, the Erie Canal in New York State is credited by economic historians with giving the growth boost needed for New York City to eclipse Philadelphia as America's largest port and city — but such canal systems with their locks, need for maintenance and dredging, pumps and sanitary issues were eventually outcompeted in the carriage of high-value items by the railways due to the higher speed, falling costs, and route flexibility of Rail transport. Barge and canal systems were nonetheless of great, perhaps even primary, economic importance until after World War I in Europe, particularly in the more developed nations of the Low Countries, France, Germany, Poland, and especially Great Britain which more or less made the system characteristically its own.