In the late 1930s, Cargill entered the shipbuilding business with an innovative thought: one boat is more efficient than two.
Cargill’s trade business had expanded significantly, now making frequent use of inland waterways for shipping. Focused on further expanding this strategy, the company’s president, John MacMillan, Jr., saw an alternative to the standard towboat-and-barge model. The current structure, which latched the small towboat and massive barge together, was not only slow, but cumbersome as it navigated the twists and turns of rivers and canals. He also observed that its cargo configuration was inefficient and space could be better used to carry more grain.
John Jr., remembered for his inventive spirit and love of ships, proposed an entirely new design: connecting the vessels with steel cables to create a single, integrated unit. The barge would be enlarged, measuring close to the width of the locks it passed through, and it would be cast in single-skin steel instead of wood. The towboat would give the barge agility and speed, while the barge would provide space for additional cargo.
There was only one problem: every contractor Cargill approached was too hesitant to take on the unconventional idea. Cargill ultimately decided to spearhead the project, marking the start of their work in designing and building their own vessels.
The new “Carneida type” barge allowed Cargill to more gracefully pilot waterways, efficiently moving larger volumes of crops out of inland farms, starting at the southern reaches of the Erie Canal, up into the Great Lakes and beyond to the Atlantic. Eventually, it would have far-reaching effects, transforming the industry’s transport methods and inspiring other innovations that allowed agricultural commodities to more effectively reach global markets.