Tugging and Towing Along the Columbia

Tugboats in the Columbia Gorge

Linda Snyder/Hoot Ramsey

Winter 2010 Feature

Columbia Gorge Magazine

If you have ever spent time along the banks of the Columbia River, you’ve likely been lulled into a relaxed state by the barely audible hum of an engine and the deep, low sound of a marine horn as a tugboat and its cargo slowly crawl through the swift waters. You may have even wondered how anything that moves so slowly can possibly be economically feasible. But feasible it is, and efficient, touted as perhaps the cleanest, safest and most environmentally friendly mode of commercial transportation in the modern world.


Early capitalists beginning in the late nineteenth century developed natural resource and transportation industries on the Columbia River. Along the gorge created by the river, the land lent itself to agriculture, forestry and hunting. The river itself provided a 1,200-mile long channel for transporting people and commodities as well as a prime location for harvesting salmon and steelhead trout. Since its early inception, commerce on the river has enjoyed steady growth.


Forty-foot-deep channels, and the absence of appreciable tidal current flows on the present day Columbia River, allow large barges powered by tugboats to transport goods through a series of locks fromLewiston,IdahotoAstoria,Oregon, where the river flows into thePacific Ocean. Making only one slight diversion onto the Snake River for a 141-mile stretch, tugboats pushing barges haul export and refrigerated cargo, grains, fuel, fertilizer, timber, beans, hay and myriad other products at a fraction of the cost of rail or truck carriage.


Portland, Oregon is home to the oldest tug and barge operation in the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 1880 as a steamboat company, Shaver Transportation gradually shifted away from transporting people and cargo, in favor of towing. By 1914, the Shaver fleet grew to seven tugs and by 1950 they were up to two-dozen steel-hulled diesel engine tugs, engaged primarily in towing timber. Now in its fifth generation of family-owned operation, Shaver carries a wide variety of cargo with its state-of-the-art fleet of 24 barges and ten tugboats, many designed to operate in both deep and shallow water and self-unload their cargo.


Tidewater, another forerunner in maritime commerce, was founded in Vancouver, Washington in 1932, beginning as a barge line handling wheat. Today, Tidewater has evolved into the largest inland marine transportation company west of the Mississippi River. Tidewater’s fleet of 17 tugboats and 130 barges serves over forty grain elevators and thirty-six individual port districts along this river system.


One line of business that Tidewater pioneered on the Columbia River is handling solid waste by barge in sealed containers. With each barge carrying up to sixty containers, this service currently transports solid waste originating in Clark County, Washington to a landfill in eastern Oregon, eliminating over 16,000 truck movements annually from highways traversing the scenic Columbia Gorge.


In 1986, operators of vessels along an almost 100-mile stretch of the Columbia River met with enhanced scrutiny of their operations. For years, water sports enthusiasts, bikers, hikers and environmentally conscious local citizens had sought a way to preserve the scenic, cultural, recreational and natural resources of the Columbia River Gorge. Their efforts were rewarded, when in 1986, the unique and ecologically fragile area formed by ancient volcanoes and cataclysmic ice age floods, was granted National Scenic Area status by an act of Congress.


Along with grant funds, the designation provided legislation that mandates environmental protection through agreements between federal, state, municipal, and county governments in the Columbia River Gorge. Soon thereafter came the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, requiring that all petroleum products be transported in double-hulled barges by the year 2015.


Tidewater has taken the lead in constructing double-hulled petroleum barges and converting some existing equipment to meet the new requirements well ahead of the 2015 deadline. Tidewater now carries all its petroleum cargoes in double hull barges. Today, their petroleum barge fleet is also equipped with vapor recovery systems for safer more environmental friendly handling of petroleum products.


John Pigott, Assistant to the President of Tidewater, who has been with the company for the past thirteen years says, “We apply diligence to our entire area of operation to ensure we leave the lightest environmental footprint possible on the delicate ecology of the Columbia and the Snake Rivers. We operate as if every stretch of water we transit is the Columbia River Gorge, ensuring that we do no harm to all this region’s waterways and the communities we pass through.”

Though these two transportation giants are formidable competitors, their camaraderie is evident when an opportunity arises to improve conditions on the river system. Fred Harding is a 30-year tugboat captain and currently serves as Port Captain for Shaver at its Portland Headquarters. He takes comfort in knowing that he and his fellow operators act as brothers-in-arms when it comes to matters of safety and the environment. “A Joint Safety Committee between our companies makes everyone more aware of their actions and how those actions might impact innocent people and the natural resources they need in order to make a living and enjoy a healthy life.”


“When you know that you are doing everything possible to operate responsibly, you take a great deal of solace in the beauty of the area,” says Harding. “Being a tug captain for thirty years, I have seen a lot happen on the water. I’ve enjoyed tranquility and I’ve had some close calls. Rarely is a trip in the Columbia River Gorge boring. When things are quiet, I think how thankful I am for being able to make a decent living, getting paid for doing something I enjoy, rather than having to pay to do it.”


“But things are not always quiet.” Harding adds, “During the course of a season, hundreds of wind surfers and kite boarders grab the gorge winds and play like darting birds in the waters along the scenic area.” Furrowing his brow, Ritter continues, “Imagine an ever-expanding sandbar, nudged against a minimally adequate bridge structure and teeming with people playing in 40-55 mile per hour winds for several months out of the year, and you have the makings of some tense moments in the wheelhouse. Most any tug captain will tell you that these prevailing conditions around the Hood River Interstate Bridge create the most treacherous stretch of water on the entire Columbia-Snake River trip.”


Commanding a very respectable presence on the north bank of the Columbia in Bingen, Washington is SDS Lumber’s Marine Division. This sixty-four-year-old lumber operation had Nichols Boat Works in Hood River, Oregon build its first tug, “Tug Dauby,” in 1978. Dauby was used to haul residual wood chips from its own mill to pulp mills down river. Now operating a fleet of six tugs and eight barges, SDS Marine is the only operator currently towing log rafts on the Columbia and Snake Rivers.


According to Gary Collins, SDS Marine Supervisor, “Some of our customers prefer to bring us their logs for towing in order to benefit from the economic and environmental advantages of towing or barging products as compared to truck hauling.” He pauses for a moment and adds; “It does make sense, when you figure that a barge can tow over 160 truckloads of timber at a time. For our chip customers, our barges haul 100 truckloads per barge. It is a situation where everyone is a winner.”


Like their counterparts, Shaver and Tidewater, SDS Marine uses only the highest grade fuels and adheres to a grueling maintenance and upgrade program to remain in compliance and minimize their footprint on the river and its surrounding communities.


Collins has worked on the River for 36 years, 26 of which were spent overseeing and helping SDS grow its Marine operations. “I was raised on Collins Point, Washington and as a kid, I enjoyed watching the tugs operate up and down the river. I was fortunate to get a job on the river shortly after high school. I worked hard as journeyman and eventually got my captain’s license. It was all worth it.”


Reflecting on the good decision he made all those years ago, Collins adds, “I wish more young people would get involved. It is a good quality of life. There is excitement on the water, especially when the wind is blowing and a windsurfer falls in front of you, and even inspiration in the beauty of a sunset over the gorge.”


So, whether that tugboat you see on the river is towing lentils or liquid fertilizer, you can rest assured that it is saving millions of units of toxic emissions from being released into the air that you breathe.


Enjoy a sunset. Take a walk along the river on a clear day with a bright blue sky overhead. Feel the breeze in your face. Take time to smell the flowers. Get out on the river and take advantage of the gorge winds to sail high on your kite or skim the water on your sailboard. Your good maritime neighbors are watching out for you as they slowly maneuver their massive tows through your playground. Maybe even give them a little “thank you” wave as they pass through, doing their part to efficiently grow the economy and protect the beauty of this magnificent place you call home.










Number of miles traveled transporting one ton of cargo per gallon of fuel:

Barge = 514 miles

Train  = 202 miles

Truck = 59 miles

Pollutants (in pounds) produced moving one ton of cargo 1,000 miles

Barge                     Train                      Truck


Hydrocarbon           .09                        .46                        .63

Carbon Monoxide    .20                        .64                        1.9

Nitrous Oxide                   .53                        1.83                      10.17