The first vessels carrying cargo and fostering river commerce were flatboats and
keelboats. The era of the flatboat lasted from 1790 to 1900. Flatboats, rudimentary crafted, were made of wood boards, loaded with cargo and then floated down river. They were only used for travel downstream, and were sold for their wood upon completion of the journey. Keelboats, 40 ft to 80 ft long and 10 ft wide, were rowed or pushed, and could carry significant amount of cargoes.
The demand for faster commerce and larger containers led to the development of the modern barge pushed by steamboats and eventually towboats.
The steam engine was developed in the 19th century by James Watt, and adapted for river use by Robert Fulton. The New Orleans built by Fulton in 1811 started the era of steamboat travel on American Inland waterways. Due to the shallow nature of western rivers, including many natural obstacles, shallow draft hulls, paddlewheels and lightweight engines were created.
Generally the steamboat would carry combinations of either cargo or passengers. In order to increase carrying capacity some steamboats began to push barges loaded with cargo. By 1880 distinct types of steamboats were developed, including towboats.
Today modern towboats powered by diesel engines with steel hulls are between 50 ft and 200 ft long, with as much as much as 10,500 horsepower. Contrary to their name, they actually push the cargo load of barges up and down river. The name towboat actually comes from the grouping of barges which is called a tow. The line haul towboat is the largest and is typically maneuvered using six rudders, four flanking (in front of the propeller) and two main rudders (behind the propeller). An illustration of this dual steering method is shown in the following diagram. These large vessels form the backbone of the efficient system of river commerce.
*A common misunderstanding is made between towboats and tugboats. Tugboats usually have deeper hulls, making them more seaworthy. They are used generally to help larger vessels maneuver in port. Towboats, or push boats, have flat bottoms and are used to push barges and cargo on Inland Waterways.
Alans Boatyard: Rudder Systems Found on Towboats
Alans Boatyard: Towboats Page
American Rivers: Army Corps Reform the Mississippi River
The American StenwheelAssociation, Inc: The Paddlewheet Riverboat
McDonough Marine: Towing Services
MSN Encarta: Flatboat on the Mississippi
Nautical Archaology at Texas A&M: Corvette & Rio Bravo
Old River Bill: The Helm
Old River Bill: Workboat Class
Riverboats: The Development of Western Rivers Watercraft
Southern Illinois University: Archaeologists Salvage 1800s-era Flatboat
Towboat Joe: Towboat Information