Concrete doesn’t sound like the best material for the hull of a barge.
The mixture of crushed rock and cement is heavier than wood, especially when molded around a steel mesh skeleton. Concrete is also brittle and prone to cracking with the bumps most boats sustain along the New York’s Erie Canal.
But at a time when metal was scarce and wood expensive, concrete seemed like decent alternative. Despite the obvious disadvantages, concrete was molded quickly into a buoyant hull shape during World War I — and a cluster of scuttled cement barges in Rotterdam Junction are testament to a unique element of that history.
Concrete started looking like a pretty attractive material to use for barge hulls once the United States became involved in World War I. These barges would cost considerably less than their wooden counterparts and could be mass produced quickly to ferry in supplies from west of the Hudson River to support the war effort.
William McAdoo, the director general of the U.S. Railroad Administration, commandeered the state’s canal system
in April 1918 and promptly appointed G.A. Tomlinson its general manager. Only they quickly found that the newly enlarged canal lacked the barges needed to haul roughly 10 million tons of grain and coal from the western region of New York during the navigation season,
Tomlinson, a shipbuilder by trade, saw concrete as part of the solution. He envisioned a fleet of 75 barges — some steel and some concrete — that could be produced quickly and then put to work on the canal.
“We are going to build a lot of barges and operate them on the [Erie Canal],” Tomlinson told the New York Times in 1918. “If the first ones work out all right we shall build more like them. If they need improvement, we’ll improve them.”
The dimensions of the barges are staggering when considering the material used in construction. Roughly 150 feet long and 20 feet wide, the barges weighed in at 310 tons each with a capacity to carry up to 500 tons of cargo.
The concrete was also much more economical than wood. The concrete ships cost about $5,500 or roughly $1,900 less than wooden barges of that time, a savings that must have appealed to McAdoo, the former U.S. treasury secretary.
“This guy was an economics guy,” said Schenectady County Historian Don Rittner. “His bottom line was money. When you put all these things together, it made common sense to build them.”
The Erie also seemed like an ideal place to try concrete barges. The relatively shallow canal lacked wave surges and didn’t have the corrosive salinity of the ocean.
But the war didn’t last very long after the concrete barges began service. In fact, the war ended with the Armistice of November 1918, less than seven months after the federal government took control if the canal.
The concrete barges worked well. With the war over, however, their utility quickly diminished. No longer were such massive barges needed along the Erie, especially when they had an average lifespan of five years and had twice the draft of their wooden or steel counterparts. The 4-inch-thick concrete hulls were also brittle and easily cracked if the barges grazed a piling or other obstruction in the channel.
The barges gradually were phased out from the canal. Damaged vessels were broken up where they sank to prevent obstructions, while still serviceable barges were deliberately scuttled along the approaches to the canal locks to serve as both boat moorings and erosion control structures.
Massive concrete blocks with steel mooring posts were placed on the hulls of the barges. Division Canal Engineer Steve Sweeney said the tie-ups proved valuable during a time when commercial boat traffic still bustled.
“If you had to wait for boat traffic to clear the lock, there was a place to tie up,” he said.
Sweeney said the concrete barges were sunk near a number of locks and are typically submerged during the navigation season. They become visible again, once the canal is drawn down during the late fall.
“It’s actually a neat part of our history,” he said.
Lock 9 in Rotterdam Junction features five of the concrete barges, which will be visible above water until the state Canal Corporation begins lowering the moveable dams on Thursday. Once the canal opens on May 1, most boaters moving along the Mohawk will drift past the war-era relics without ever realizing the role they once played.
“Because there’s no kiosk or marker, most people don’t know what they are,” Rittner said.