The Tow-Barge System Revisited – Summer 2012

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Edward S. Warner


In the early autumn of 1872, the following appeared in the “Marine Intelligence” section of a Chicago daily newspaper:

“Barge Transportation — Within a few years past the system of barge transportation has obtained success on the Lakes, and its great reduction of expenses proves a serious menace to our sailing fleets. …With a fleet of these, towed by a steam barge also carrying a cargo, it is easily seen into what an unequal contest our sailing vessels enter. …Some time will no doubt be consumed in the full growth and perfection of the barge system, but ultimately, and at no distant day, it would seem from the present outlook, our white-winged carriers will be practically swept from the Lakes.”1

There is evidence suggesting that this rather broad pronouncement concerning the emerging tow-barge system was somewhat over-stated with respect to its nature, merits, and its ultimate impact on commercial sail. Foremost, the tow-barge system was, to some significant extent, a hybrid; that is, it was not a “pure” system in that it was dependent, in part, on sail. Too, system vagaries produced several negative trade-offs as against commercial sail. And, it appears that the tow-barge system, in and of itself, did not cause the demise of commercial sail; rather, both systems gave way to evolutionary developments at approximately the same time.

The tow-barge system typically involved using a cargo-carrying steamer, or in some cases a tug, to tow one, two, or sometimes three or more consorts during planned, mainly long-distance trips. This was in contrast to elective, unscheduled towing with tugs on the parts of sailing vessels, which occurred most often in harbor environs but also in other restrictive situations, most notably the Detroit River/Lake St. Clair/St. Clair River passage, known as “the Rivers.” Virtually all of the sailing vessels adapted to or built for use as consorts were fore-and-aft rigged, so that they were often referred to as “schooner-barges.” That said, however, the extent and complexity of rigging varied markedly.

The heavily-loaded steamer Charles H. Bradley towing three heavily-loaded consorts. Date and location unknown. Image from the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

A Hybrid System

The tow-barge system was partially, yet significantly, a hybrid which depended upon both steam and sail. That is, some of the vessels which were towed were fully rigged and made some of a season’s trips independently under sail, and some were both sailed independently and towed during the course of particular trips.2 Moreover, when conditions permitted, sail was rather commonly set on consorts under tow to augment the power of steamers or tugs. And, some of the steamers themselves were fitted with masts and sails to enhance their own power.

The schooner Annie Sherwood, a fully-rigged, three-masted vessel, commenced the 1870 season as a consort to the steamer [William T.?] Graves; however, in mid-August, the schooner’s first mate recorded while at Toledo that it was the “last of our towing with the Graves.” The vessel completed its season, which ended in November, independently under sail.3 Lakes maritime historian Fred Neuschel, in his case study of the Charles Mears lumber fleet, uncovered a letter intended to become a contract between Mears and the master of one of his vessels, the schooner-scow Black Hawk. The letter explicitly anticipated that the vessel would be making some of her trips independently under sail and some others as a consort to a Mears steam-barge during the 1872 season.4

Oscar B. Smith, master of the Sandusky Transportation Company’s fully-rigged schooner D.K. Clint during the 1889 and 1890 seasons, noted in his journal at the outset of the 1889 season that the Company owned a twin to the Clint, the schooner L. C. Butts, and that the firm’s steamer Chauncy Hurlbut, “will tow us more or less this season.”5 In late May, he wrote that he towed out of Sandusky and “sailed for the Rivers.” The Hurlbut took him under tow off Middle Sister Island,6 so that he had sailed a distance of about 30 linear miles.7 In another instance, very near the close of that season, the steamer with the Clint in tow and both loaded with coal for Chicago, took the Butts under tow off Ashtabula, that vessel having been loaded with coal for Escanaba. Four days later, the Butts was cast off near Beaver Island so as to sail independently to Escanaba,8 a distance of approximately 75 linear miles. To commence the first trip of the 1890 season, the schooner Butts sailed from Cleveland to Kelley’s Island, a distance of about 50 linear miles, to join the steamer Hurlbut and the schooner Clint bound for Escanaba.9

The steamer Chauncy Hurlbut, which often towed the schooners D.K. Clint and L.C. Butts during the 1889 and 1890 seasons. Date and location unknown. Image from the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

A prominent Lakes maritime newspaper, reporting on developments in Cleveland, noted that “the barge H. P. Baldwin has transformed into a schooner once more. …She has been thoroughly overhauled and recaulked throughout and repainted; given a new center board box and a new cabin. But perhaps the largest improvement is the taking out of the one spar she had in her and giving her again in her history the schooner rig, a fore, a main, and a mizzen mast. … The Baldwin will…go in tow of the [tug] Sprague.”10 It appears that the H. P. Baldwin’s owners anticipated that she would be sailed independently, at least occasionally.

Maritime historian Jay Martin wrote that the schooner-barge City of Grand Haven was built in 1872 for the lumber trade and had two masts, with no topmasts, set far apart. He noted that the vessel was utilized primarily as a consort, but was occasionally sailed independently (citing primary sources) even prior to her conversion to a true schooner rig in 1884.11

James Cooke Mills, in writing about the tow-barge system, noted, “With their moderate sail power they [schooner-barges] added materially to the despatch [of the towing unit] in favoring winds; and in times of rough weather and gales, they kept the long line intact and far steadier, with one or two reefed sails set.”12

There is adequate written and photographic evidence illustrating that, whether fully rigged or minimally rigged, consorts made sail to assist their towing steamers or tugs. For instance, a Canadian newspaper recorded, “The steamer Argyle, having in tow the schooners Sligo, Home, and Cambria, started from Windsor for Chicago. … The schooners will fly their own kites [set sail] when they enter Lake Huron.”13 After the schooner L. C. Butts was let go off Beaver Island in November 1889, the steamer Chauncy Hurlbut and her remaining consort, the schooner D. K. Clint, continued their run to Chicago. During that run, the master of the Clint wrote, “Wind W.N.W. Good breeze! Have mizzen [sail(s)] furled; all other canvas set, and making fully 8 miles an hour.”14

Another indicator that the tow-barge system was a hybrid is that some of the towing steamers were themselves fitted with masts, in some cases including topmasts. For example, the steamer Robert Wallace, which was towing the schooner David Wallace when they went aground during a November gale near Marquette in 1886, was fully rigged for sail (see photograph). The steamers John M. Osborne and Vienna, built in 1882 and 1887, respectively, for the purpose of towing consorts, were fitted with masts rigged for sailing.15

The steamer Robert Wallace and her fully-rigged consort, the schooner David Wallace, aground near Marquette in November of 1886. Note that the steamer has three masts with topmasts. Image from the Historical Collections of the Great Lakes, Bowling Green State University

As an aside, there was a much earlier and rather well-developed transportation system on the Great Lakes and environs which was also, in part, hybrid. A sailing outfit was standard equipment in most fur-trade canoes. When wind conditions permitted, a single square sail was set on a yard attached to a short mast so as to either augment or to substitute for paddling.16

System Vagaries

One of the primary advantages ascribed to the tow-barge system was that of being able to reduce both the number and skill level of crew members aboard consorts, and thereby reduce expenditures for wages — normally the single largest expense category for commercial sailing vessels.17 For instance, the complement of the three-masted, 163 gross ton schooner-barge Theodore Voges consisted of a master, mate, cook and two seamen for most of that consort’s trips during the 1890 season.18 Normally, at least four qualified seamen19 would have been required to handle that vessel had it been fully rigged and sailed independently, especially in heavy weather.20

In cases where fully-rigged schooners were alternately sailed independently and towed during the course of particular seasons, and especially during the confines of given trips, full and qualified crews were necessary, thus negating savings in expenses for crew wages.21 Moreover, maintaining fully-rigged vessels was more expensive than maintaining those which had been adapted or built exclusively for towing, in that the latter often carried just two masts (sometimes one), no top- masts, and no bowsprits (and thus no jib booms).22 The 1,088 gross ton, four-masted (with topmasts) schooner David Wallace, consort to the steamer Robert Wallace, was carrying a full sailing complement of nine when the two vessels were grounded on the south shore of Lake Superior during a November gale in 1886.23

The schooner Adriatic carried a complement of eight — master, mate, “donkey man,” cook, and four seamen — as a consort on a 1901 trip from Buffalo to Milwaukee and back to Ashtabula.24 The complement of that 915 gross ton vessel was comparable to an independently-sailed schooner of like size, assuming that the “seamen” were qualified as true seamen. In turn, then, it can be surmised that the vessel was fully rigged; but, in any case, the complement was by no means minimal and thus offered no significant savings in wages. During the trip, the towing steamer broke down and the consort’s master (or mate) recorded, “we got along side of her [the steamer] and made all sail,”25 presumably to continue or perhaps to complete the trip.

According to one Lakes historian, the James Davidson Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of West Bay City, Michigan, built 12 huge wooden schooner-barges, ranging from 2,037 to 2,790 gross tons, launched from 1896 through 1902. It was noted that the crews of 11 of those vessels ranged from 6 to 12.26 However, in all but one of the cases, it is not clear whether those numbers represent intended or actual crews. Certainly, actual crews of just 6 or 7 would have been quite minimal, and thus would have produced savings in wages as against full sailing crews; however, actual crews of 8 to 12 would not have permitted significant, if any, savings in wages.

In any given tow-barge arrangement, the last vessel loaded or unloaded, whether a cargo-carrying steamer or a consort, determined the actual departure time for the entire towing unit. Thus, the elapsed time between the times that the first and last vessel was loaded or unloaded was the net delay time for the entire towing unit, which normally consisted of two, three, or sometimes four or more vessels. Cumulatively, those delays could be costly in terms of the number of trips which might be undertaken — and thus profits realized — during a season.

Again, a case in point is the Sandusky Transportation Company’s three-vessel towing arrangement during the 1889 season involving the steamer Chauncy Hurlbut and her two consorts, the schooners D. K. Clint and L. C. Butts. At 11:00 a.m. on April 29, in preparation for the initial trip of the season, the master of the Clint recorded that he “commenced loading this morning, coal for Duluth. Expect to finish tomorrow. The Chauncy Hurlbut is loaded waiting for me.” At 6:00 p.m. the following day he noted that “we left the harbor at 4:00 p.m. in tow of the Chauncy Hurlbut with schr. L. C. Butts astern of us.”27 On the return leg of the season’s third round trip, the Clint’s master wrote that “We left Ashland at 2:00 p.m. today after waiting 3½ days for the Hurlbut & Butts.”28 In loading ore at Escanaba for the final return trip of the season, Capt. Smith recorded that he was loaded on Monday, November 25 and “waited for the Hurlbut. She finished loading last eve [Thursday, November 28].”29 Cumulatively, those three incidents amounted to seven and one-half days of delay; and, moreover, there may well have been other delays which were not recorded.

Lakes maritime historians William Lafferty and Valerie van Heest, in their study of Great Lakes self-unloaders, recount the causes and costs of delays in loading and unloading bulk cargos, noting that the vast majority of vessels transporting bulk cargos had to be loaded and unloaded with shore-based equipment, much of it primitive and involving a great deal of manual labor.30

Insufficient power and engine breakdowns on the parts of towing steamers — which affected the entire towing unit — were also among the vagaries of the tow-barge system. Capt. Smith wrote early in the 1889 season, “Our steam barge [the Hurlbut] lacks power; two heavy vessels [loaded with ore] are more than she can tow with profit.”31 During the following season, the Hurlbut was experiencing engine difficulties permitting her to tow only the schooner Butts, so that the steamer Nahant was employed to tow the schooner Clint. While under tow from Escanaba with 1,146 tons of ore on board, Capt. Smith noted that “The Nahant is even a poorer tow than our Hurlbut.”32

The tow-barge system did not eliminate the need for tugs to tow consorts and occasionally their host steamers, in and out of restricted harbors — a significant expense category. Upon arriving at Duluth, Capt. Smith of the schooner D. K. Clint wrote in August 1889, “A tug took me in, also the Butts. The steamer Hurlbut also took a tug….”33 In the case of the schooner David Wallace, consort to the steam barge Robert Wallace, harbor towing accounted for 17.5 percent of the consort’s expenses for the 1888 season.34

The president of the Lakes Seamen’s Union, in testimony before a Senate committee, noted that sometimes consorts broke adrift. “When one of those breaks adrift in a gale of wind on the Lakes…she can never be picked up again.”35 In addition to the outright danger to consort crews and the vessels themselves, broken tow lines created delays. Late in the 1890 season, while under tow of the steamer Hurlbut, the schooner Butts’ towline parted on Lake St. Clair, causing a five-hour delay; then, opposite Ft. Gratiot the schooner Clint’s line parted, requiring another delay in order to obtain an 840-foot line from Detroit.36 Finally, there were some straightforward challenges to the ostensible cost savings attributed to the tow-barge system. For instance, it was reported in mid-August of 1872, that “The schooner Armstrong, which thus far this season has been connected with a line of barges by being towed through the lakes and rivers, is for the remainder of the season to perform the trips under canvas as formerly. She is employed in the ore trade between Marquette and Sandusky, and her captain is of the opinion that on the above route his expenses will be considerably lessened by adopting this course.”37 It is not known just which expenses were of significance in that master’s decision, but it would appear that the Armstrong was being towed for a fee, the steamer or tug and the schooner under separate ownership. Moreover, if the schooner was carrying a full sailing crew while under tow, that expense would have been significant, as previously pointed out.

The Demise of the Sailing and the Tow-Barge Systems

It is quite apparent that the tow-barge system negatively impacted commercial sail on the Lakes, but evidently it was not the sole cause of its final demise. Rather, both systems gave way to ever-larger steam vessels with greater speed together with greater carrying capacities and unloading capabilities.

In 1883, a prominent Lakes maritime newspaper, quoting the Toledo Telegraph, printed the following: “An observant vessel man [sailing vessel master] says that in his opinion there will not be a sail vessel on the Lakes in five years. He thinks that they will all be converted into barges.”38 That prediction, as with the one quoted at the outset of this article, was somewhat rash and short-sighted. Schooners designed to be sailed were still being built as late as 1889;39 and, moreover, there were numerous schooners still in service as independently-sailed vessels at the turn of the century.40

The production and use of ever-larger schooners to transport bulk cargos, whether sailed independently or employed as consorts towed by steamers or tugs, was of limited success. Wind power was often insufficient to move the large vessels along at an effective rate and many steamers were not powerful enough to do likewise with large schooner-barges in tow. One Lakes maritime historian has written that although a case can be made for the success of the monster schooner-barges based on the amount of cargo carried, “they were fraught with all sorts of problems. In calm they appeared to be docile and ideally suited for their purpose, but heavy weather brought out the worst in them. The massive vessels were difficult, some skippers said impossible, to manage in big seas. Their careers were speckled with collisions and other accidents, and many came to violent ends.”41 The largest sailing vessel ever built on the Lakes, the five-masted 1,481 gross ton David Dows, was launched at Toledo early in 1881. The vessel was sailed independently for just two seasons, became a schooner-barge in 1883, and sank while serving in that capacity in 1889. In her rather brief career she “did not live up to expectations. She proved unwieldy, cumbersome, and dangerous.”42

The steamer J. Pierpont Morgan, as the first of the “standard 600-footers,” was launched in 1906, along with eight sister ships during that and the following year. Many others were subsequently built and formed the essence of the major bulk carrier fleets for the following 35 years.43 And, “most of them had efficiently uneventful lives. Their greatest adventures were carrying cargos of record sizes and cargos that were unloaded at record speeds.”44 Developments in shore-based unloading technology together with the advent of self-unloading technology, commencing with the steamer Hennepin in 1902,45 further enhanced the superiority of the larger bulk carriers and thus signaled the death-knell for both the sailing and the tow-barge systems.


1 Chicago Inter Ocean, 11 September 1872.
2 If there is any evidence that particular vessels were fully rigged and were both towed and sailed independently during the course of particular seasons or trips, they are referred to herein as “schooners” rather than “schooner-barges.”
3 Timothy Kelley, 1870 diary (entries for August 13, 17, 19, and 20; November 25). Wisconsin Maritime Museum.
4 Fred Neuschel, “Owner, Master, Sailor: Working Relationships in the Charles Mears Lumber Fleet,” Inland Seas, 61 (Fall 2005), 221–231 at 228.
5 Capt. Oscar B. Smith, “The Schooner D.K. Clint,” Inland Seas, 33 (Spring 1977), 22–29, (Summer 1977), 121–127, (Fall 1977), 215–218 and 227–232 at 23 (entry for April 23, 1889). Captain Smith’s journal provides a useful case study of what could (and did) go awry with the tow-barge system.
6 Ibid., 25 (entries for May 25 and 26, 1889).
7 When sailing, linear miles very often translate to considerably greater numbers of actual miles, depending largely on wind direction and velocity.
8 Smith, “The Schooner D.K. Clint,” 124 (entries for November 10 and 14, 1889).
9 Ibid., 216 (entry for April 17, 1890).
10 Marine Record, 29 May 1884.
11 Jay C. Martin, “Long in the Trade: The Career of the Lumber Schooner City of Grand Haven,” Anchor News (July/August, 1990), 65–71 at 65.
12 James Cooke Mills, Our Inland Seas; Their Shipping and Commerce for Three Centuries (Chicago: A.C. McClurg, 1910; reprint Cleveland: Freshwater Press, 1976), 187–188.
13 Amherstburg Echo, 28 April 1876.
14 Smith, “The Schooner D.K. Clint,” 124 (entry for November 14, 1889).
15 Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, Ghosts of the Shipwreck Coast (Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., n.d.), 8–15.
16 See Edward S. Warner, “Early Canoe Travel under Sail in the Great Lakes Region,” Inland Seas, 59 (Fall 2003), 178–182.
17 Based on an availability sample of 19 vessel financial accounts ranging from 1854 through 1901.
18 Schooner-barge Theodore Voges, 1890 financial accounts. Great Lakes Historical Society.
19 It is not known whether or not the “seamen” listed in the Voges’ accounts were fully qualified to sail, and thus equivalent to able seamen. For a discussion of qualifications see Edward S. Warner, “The Employment of Seamen aboard American Great Lakes Commercial Sailing Vessels,” Inland Seas, 65 (Spring 2009), 14–25 at 15–17.
20 Handling consorts (and even their towing steamers) in heavy weather, and particularly if they broke away or were cast off from their towing steamers or tugs, was a major concern of the Lakes Seamen’s Union, which advocated that there be aboard consorts at all times adequate numbers of seamen qualified to sail the vessel. See the testimony of Richard Powers, President of that organization, in U.S. Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Report of the Committee of the Senate upon the Relations between Labor and Capital and Testimony Taken by the Committee, Volume I (Washington: GPO, 1885), 422–436 at 425–426.
21 Crews could be altered only between trips, so that if a trip in a fully-rigged vessel was going to be undertaken as a consort with no independent sailing forseen, the change would have been accomplished by reducing the number of seamen and/or by hiring deckhands in place of seamen.
22 See James P. Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes; 300 Years of Navigation, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: Howell- North, 1974), 148.
23 Julius F. Wolff, Jr., “Some Noted Shipwrecks on the Michigan Coast of Lake Superior,” Inland Seas, 16 (Fall 1960), 172–179 at 173–174. Presumably, the consort’s full sailing complement was configured as documented just two seasons later: master, mate, second mate, cook, and five sea- men. Schooner David Wallace, 1888 financial accounts. Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection, Alpena County Public Library.
24 Schooner Adriatic, 1901 financial accounts. Great Lakes Historical Society.
25 Schooner Adriatic, 1901 log (entry for June 10). Great Lakes Historical Society.
26 Dave Swayze, “The Giant Wooden Barges of the Davidson Yard,” Inland Seas, 47 (Summer 1991), 104–108 at 105–106.
27 Smith, “The Schooner D. K. Clint,” 23 (entries for April 29 and 30).
28 Ibid., 26 (entry for July 1).
29 Ibid., 125 (entry for November 28).
30 See William Lafferty and Valerie van Heest, Buckets and Belts: Evolution of the Great Lakes Self-Unloader (Holland, Mich.: In-Depth Editions, 2009), 53–-56.
31 Smith, “The Schooner D.K. Clint,” 24 (entry for May 14, 1889).
32 Ibid., 216 and 217 (entries for April 19 and 26, May 16, and June 1, 1890).
33 Ibid., 29 (entry for August 22).
34 Schooner David Wallace, financial accounts. Thunder Bay Sanctuary Research Collection, Alpena County Public Library.
35 Report of the Committee of the Senate, 425.
36 Smith, “The Schooner D.K. Clint,” 229 (entry for October 9, 1890).
37 Chicago Inter Ocean, 13 August 1872.
38 Marine Record, 26 July 1883.
39 Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes, 142–143.
40 Based on a sampling of Great Lakes vessels in the “Alphabetical List of Merchant Sailing Vessels of the United States” in The Thirty-Second Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States…for the Year Ended June 30, 1900 (Washington: GPO, 1900).
41 Swayze, “The Giant Wooden Barges of the Davidson Yard,” 106.
42 Barbara Ulrich, “The David Dows,” Anchor News (May/June, 1991), 48–50 at 49.
43 Barry, Ships of the Great Lakes, 173–178.
44 Ibid., 178.
45 Ibid., 174–178 and Lafferty and van Heest, Buckets and Belts, 45–52.

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About the Author: Edward S. Warner is a social scientist and former university library director who has previously published the results of his research in this journal and elsewhere. He is a long-time member of the Great Lakes Historical Society as well as the Association for Great Lakes Maritime History, and served as the Association’s Secretary for 20 years.

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