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More about Scow Schooners and Barges

Scow Schooners

A scow schooner is a sailing vessel characterized by the use of fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts with the forward mast being no taller than the rear masts. The Dutch first used this kind of ship in the sixteenth century. Schooners became popular and their design was adapted during the early eighteenth century. At that time, they were more widely used in the United States than in any other country.

During and after the California Gold Rush (1848-1855), San Francisco became a merchant city, supplying much of northern California with commercial goods and raw materials. By 1880, there were more than 250 scow schooners plying the San Francisco Bay and Delta waters. These ships were San Francisco’s “delivery trucks”. There were three primary reasons for the scow schooner’s popularity:

  • Very little of the vessel was below water, which allowed sailors to use the ships in the shallow waters.

  • The scow schooner’s flat bottom allowed them to be beached at low tide, making for easy loading and unloading.

  • Because of their simple design, only a small crew was needed to sail these vessels.


a line drawing of a typical scow schooner

Drawing of a typical scow schooner showing the area uncovered at Visitacion Valley in green


Wooden barges are an ancient and common type of ship. Their basic design dates back to the Middle Ages. They are generally flat-bottomed and built for transport of heavy goods. Barges can be self-propelled, towed behind another vessel, or pushed along by tugboats.

Like the scow schooner, barges were the early “delivery trucks.” Barges were cheaper to build, and this allowed many more merchants the ability to ship their products such as barley and wheat to nearby markets. Their bulky shape made them more difficult to use in choppy waters, and barges are a slower vessel than the sleeker scow schooner. Still, barges are a very reliable technology and remain in use today.

Want to see a Barge?

The technology of barge construction has changed very little in the last 100 years. Many of the barges you see in the bay are similar to the barge that archaeologists found in the sewer trench. Next time you are near the docks and wharfs of the Bay Area, be on the lookout for these vessels.

an aerial photo of a modern barge

Modern Barge Pushed by a Tug Boat on San Francisco Bay. Photo Courtesy Herb Lingl

Last updated: 6/5/2017 3:46:55 PM