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Coal Fleet: 1910

Coal Fleet: 1910

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, circa 1910. "A coal fleet." 8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company. View full size.


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Central Steam Barges

Although the season is not evident (it might be winter given the amount of steam smoke from buildings in the picture), I believe the barges were use to supply steam through hoses to loosen frozen coal piles for unloading. I think lake freighters also carried "donkey boilers" for this purpose.

Certainly propulsion

Note the size of the stack on the central barge, compared to the stove stacks on the living-quarters barges near the river bank.

Cap'n Jack can correct me if I'm wrong, but the one in the middle doesn't contribute all that much to forward progress. It's used mostly for steering.

The rig is necessary because steam engines aren't all that powerful for their size, and because paddlewheelers don't steer as easily as screw-drive vessels. These old-fashioned assemblies of barges ("tows") are rigid blocks. A modern tow is much longer and narrower in proportion, and is flexible, rigged with steel-wire cables so that the front is steerable, to make it around bends. The boat pushing it is at least ten times more powerful than the most muscular one in this scene. All that waits on big, powerful Diesels turning deep screws against big rudders, all of which is thirty or forty years in the future of this picture.


Adding to the wonder is the collection of small-diameter steel pipes connected to the central barge, fanning out to all the coal barges. They must do something.

[Steam heat? - Dave]

What are the central steam barges?

Each of these fleet of coal barges has a small barge lashed in the center which appears to contain a boiler. At least they have a stack. The boilers are stoked by coal stored on the front of the barge. Any ideas about what these were used for? Certainly not propulsion. Interesting to see that each fleet of barges also has living quarters lashed to it. This would make the whole construction self-sufficient for long trips.

En route

Al that coal was most likely destined to go into the furnaces of Pittsburgh's steel mills.

Duquesne University

Isn't that DU on The Bluff with its main building's bell tower visible between the bridge's cables just to the right of the far riverbank's support upright? I spent two years as a freshman and sophomore there beginning September 1946 after which I left my hometown to see the world. (See my page on Facebook, please.)

Mount Washington is on this side of the Monongahela River, with a church visible, I believe, on the hilltop.

Few barges and paddlewheels and steel mill smokestacks remain today and some new office buildings rise high but the scene has a familiarity after many years. If I still lived there I might recall the names of buildings and streets in the photo. I particularly like the white-trimmed firehouse on the far side. Many thanks, Shorpy.

Barges & Towboats

With a few modifications, this scene could have been created just yesterday. Large groups of barges secured together by a network of mooring lines and pushed by towboats with specially designed bow knees are a fixture on today's Midwestern rivers.

What's "different" about this scene is that the coal barges are all small wooden boats, and the towboats -- including "James Moren" (or maybe McRen) -- with the prominent "RC" logo, look almost like passenger excursion boats more than tugs. However, the RC logo (explained on some of the barges where it's spelled out, "River Coal") and the pushing knees on the bow of James Moren, give away the true function of these craft.

The size of the towboats and the existence of the smaller, houseboat-like craft in the middle and edge of the barge group may be related to the need for overnight accommodations for large numbers of line handlers in that period compared to today. For instance, breaking down the raft of barges to pass through a lock must have resulted in lots of yelling and running around.

I think T26, with a prominent stack, was probably equipped with steam power and could have functioned as a tug. Some of the others might have been nonpowered accommodation barges.


Looks like a fairly sunny day in smoky ol' 1910 Pittsburgh! The Wabash Bridge in the foreground is gone, but its foundations remain. You can see one below. I pass it every day on the Parkway East (I-376). About a city block's worth of the row of lower buildings above the left bank on Fort Pitt Blvd. remain as well, between the Wabash Bridge and the next bridge, which is the still-remaining and most beautiful Smithfield Street Bridge.

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On the right, hiding behind the bridge, is the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad building, which is now ironically for our purposes, the home of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation! (And an amazing, stunning restaurant, The Grand Concourse.)

PS- The first large break in the "high rises" there on the left: my apartment is in a building that stands there now. I'm sitting *right there*, right now, waving at Shorpy readers 100 years in the future :)

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