The Emergence of Barging, Part I

Before there was river cruising, there was barging.

European Waterways' Amaryllis is a modern-day cruising barge. The first barges to transport passengers were refitted bulk carriers. Photo courtesy of European Waterways

Historically, barges were used to transport goods along the waterways of Europe. They could carry bulk and other cargo that was difficult to ship by traditional land-based methods, and even after the adoption of the railroad as a method of moving goods and passengers, barging remained an economical and popular way to conduct business. Railroads were limited by their fledgling infrastructure, and fluctuations in the gauge, or track size, used between competing companies often meant that trains could travel no farther than a country’s geographical boundaries.

But as rail transport improved and standardized, more and more goods began to be shipped via train instead of by barge. The invention of delivery trucks and other automobiles in the early 1900’s meant that goods could be driven locally between two points, causing a further reduction in the amount of good shipped by barge.

After World War II, the decline in goods shipped over the waterways of Europe caused some enterprising ship owners to come up with a radical idea: They would convert their barges from cargo ships to passenger ships in order to ferry people on long cruises up and down the canals.

Barges are typically smaller and carry less passengers than their larger river counterparts.

One of the earliest innovators of barging was a young man named Richard Parsons. A newspaper reporter for Reuters, Parsons had purchased an old coal barge that he and his brother John had repositioned to Dunkirk and refitted into a passenger ship. Dubbed the Palinurus, it was fitted with just two toilets, two showers and one bath, all of which would be used by the ship’s 20 guests.

Parsons didn’t really think much of the invention at the time, stating in a 2008 interview with France Today, “We never thought about luxury then—it was just the idea of a fun holiday, walking and biking and eating and drinking. The most exciting thing for me was that no one else was doing it.”

Even though Parsons was at the forefront of barging innovation, there were still drawbacks in those early days. Since the waterways still catered primarily to cargo traffic, it wasn’t uncommon to be stuck at the back of an extremely long queue of freighters waiting for their turn in one of the many locks that line Europe’s waterways. Other areas had almost no traffic at all, with overgrowth from surrounding trees nearly blocking access to locks and waterways. The experience, on the whole, was an uneven one, suitable for the adventure traveler who didn’t mind a few bumps along the road, or in this case, river.

That began to change in the late 1960’s when American writer Emily Kimbrough chartered a barge for herself and some friends. Although nearly 70 years old at the time, Kimbrough published a book in 1968 about her barging adventures that piqued the interest of the American public. Floating Island, as it was called, brought American travelers to France to experience barging for themselves, and it was this influx of North Americans that were largely responsible for the race to outfit ships with better and more luxurious accommodations.

What began as a fun diversion by a few dedicated entrepreneurs had suddenly blossomed into an industry that was in high demand.

Tune in on Monday for Part II of The Emergence of Barging – here on River Cruise Advisor.