rain barge
Image: Tom Rivera

CROSSING THE checkpoint at the Portland Shipyard, on the tip of Swan Island, is like wandering into an industrial ghost town. The piers are littered with crumbling asphalt, and massive cranes brood over the waterfront like frozen herons, their idle hooks dangling in the October chill. The air is thick with an unpleasant stench—the result of ballast water being pumped from ships berthed nearby.

During its glory days, this yard was the pride of the city: Some 40,000 workers toiled around the clock to construct and launch 113 tankers over the course of WWII, a testament to Portland’s maritime muscle. After the war, however, shipbuilding migrated overseas, where most of it remains today, and the site, consigned to the gritty business of ship repair, sank into a state of suspended animation.

But today, in the cavernous gloom of Building 4, teams of welders assemble huge plates of steel amid showers of sparks and blasts of steam, and forklifts unload stacks of girders. This is the new home of U.S. Barge, which this fall launched its first vessel. The oceangoing barge, almost as long as a football field and capable of hauling 11,700 long tons of cargo, was commissioned by a Hawaiian interisland shipping company and christened the Ho’omaka Hou—Hawaiian for “New Beginning.”

The barge represents fresh hope for the shipyard, which hasn’t constructed a major seafaring vessel in more than 50 years. And there’s more to come. U.S. Barge—a joint venture between Vigor Industrial, which owns the yard, and Oregon Iron Works, which supplied the manufacturing know-how—has racked up orders for another eight barges even though the business only incorporated in 2006. “Not bad, eh?” chuckles its CEO, Frank Foti.

Long a minor barge-building town, Portland has seen a surge in this sector over the last year. Just across the Willamette River, Gunderson Marine, which built lifeboats in WWII, expects to deliver a record ten barges next year, up from four in 2006. Farther upstream, next door to the gleaming South Waterfront district, longtime barge-maker Zidell Marine leases and maintains its own fleet of roughly 50, and builds a new one every year. And 12 miles to the east, on the Columbia River, Troutdale’s Sundial Marine Construction and Repair is working on several tanker barges for the U.S. Navy.

Although barges are decidedly less glamorous than hulking ships, they are the true workhorses of America’s thousands of miles of inland waterways, hauling everything from grain to petroleum products to industrial equipment that simply won’t fit on anything smaller. Compared to ships, barges are cheaper to build, easier to maneuver and can venture into shallower waters—all reasons why they dominate river systems like those of the Columbia and the Mississippi.

The current barge boom, however, stems from a strange mix of legislation and catastrophe. Shippers are still scrambling to bring their fleets in line with the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, passed by congress in the wake of the Exxon Valdez disaster, which decrees that all vessels hauling petroleum products in U.S. waters must have double hulls—two watertight layers of steel, one inside the other—by 2015.

While many of those barges would normally have been built in the big shipyards along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina shredded their production schedules and scattered the Southeast’s skilled labor force. Owing to Portland’s shipbuilding infrastructure and proximity to the Columbia River, “The city is probably the only place on the West Coast where you can build a big oceangoing barge,” says Allen Walker of the Shipbuilders Council of America. Adding to the demand, Hawaii and Alaska need more barges to serve their growing economies, while the Gulf States now find themselves on the demand side of the equation, looking for barges to service damaged offshore oil rigs.

In a free market, these barges would all be built in Japan, Korea or China. (“It’s way cheaper to build anything heavy abroad,” says U.S. Barge’s Foti. “Waaaay cheaper.”) But the barge business is emphatically not a free market. Domestic shipping is governed by an arcane piece of protectionism known as the Jones Act, which stipulates that all vessels hauling goods between U.S. ports be built in the U.S. Any company that wants to move, say, a load of diesel fuel from Seattle to San Francisco has to do so on an American-made barge.

Less glamourous than ships, barges are the true workhorses of U.S. waterways.

Not everyone is thrilled about Foti’s latest venture. Plenty of people still remember back when his ship-repair business, Cascade General, bought the Swan Island shipyard from the Port of Portland in 2000 for $31 million—a price critics claimed was far too low. About a year later, Foti made headlines again when he decided to sell the yard’s crown jewel, Dry Dock 4, to an outfit in the Bahamas for $25 million, a transaction that left him master of 57 acres of prime industrial waterfront and with a reputation as an opportunist and a sharp operator.

Today Foti insists that selling Dry Dock 4 was the only way to keep his yard afloat. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says. “We have a thriving barge business and more than 150 new jobs. Does that sound bad to you?”

For now, at least, there seems to be enough business to keep all the yards working. On a blustery October afternoon, scores of U.S. Barge workers and their families gathered at Berth 314 to witness the christening of the Ho’omaka Hou. As the waning sun glistened on the river’s purple surface, a troupe of traditional Hawaiian dancers stationed on the barge’s vast deck chanted and waved ti leaves and garlands of flowers. One welder, her fingers still grimy from the day’s shift, stood on the dock and gazed at the barge that she helped to construct. What was she feeling? “Pride,” she answered. “I’m proud to be here.”

When the dancers finished their incantation, Angela Scalzo, the wife of the chief operating officer of the barge’s new owner, smashed a bottle of champagne against the vessel’s breakwater. As the crowd cheered, and the tugs escorting the boat into the Willamette blew their horns, it was hard not to feel that the shipyard had regained some of its old swagger.