Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a connection between these two major river systems in the southern United States that was constructed by the US Army Corps of Engineers between 1971 and 1985. It reduces the costs of shipping from the midlands of the South to ocean ports and makes American industries economically competitive in the world market.

The Tennessee River flows from the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina southwest through Tennessee and northern Alabama to northeastern Mississippi, where it meets the rocky hills that separate its drainage from that of the Tombigbee River to the south. At this point the Tennessee turns north to cross the Cumberland plateau of western Tennessee and Kentucky and join the Ohio River about one hundred miles above where it flows into the Mississippi. Since the early 1800s the lower parts of the Tennessee River had been navigable by flatboat and steamboat up to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. For many years the Tennessee River has been a major commercial route for the Mid-South.

The Tombigbee River originates in the red clay hills of northeastern Mississippi as the East Fork and Mackeys Creek, which flow south through low hills and flatlands before joining to form the Tombigbee at Paden, Mississippi. The Black Warrior River joins the Tombigbee at Demopolis, Alabama, and winds south for two hundred miles across the Coastal Plain to join the Alabama River. There it forms a great delta, spilling into Mobile Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The Tombigbee River was originally navigable by early shallow-draft steamboats from Mobile Bay to Cotton Gin Port, Mississippi. Clearing by the Corps of Engineers opened it as far as Aberdeen, Mississippi, in the early twentieth century, but as recently as 1950 modern barges from the ocean port of Mobile could travel up the Tombigbee only a few miles north of Demopolis.

From Chattanooga, Tennessee, it is eighteen hundred miles to New Orleans via the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi Rivers, and shipping costs were high. The Rivers and Harbor Act of 1946 authorized the Corps of Engineers to plan for a canal between the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers that could cut that distance by one thousand miles, saving businesses millions of dollars in just a few years. In 1958 Alabama and Mississippi established the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority to provide local initiative. After receiving favorable economic reports, Congress accepted the older plans in 1961 but appropriated no funds for another decade.

Building the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway proved difficult: the Tennessee River in Pickwick Lake is 414 feet above sea level, while at the junction of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers the waters at Demopolis Dam are only 73 feet above sea level. The lake and the dam were separated by nearly two hundred narrow, twisting miles of the Tombigbee River, with rapids along Mackeys Creek and thirty-five miles of rugged sandstone and shale hills rising nearly 600 feet above sea level.

The Corps of Engineers’ plan called for three types of construction between the Tennessee and the Tombigbee. At the northern end of the waterway, the Nashville District was to cut a channel through the high drainage divide and construct the Bay Springs Lock and Dam. South of this “Divide Section,” the Mobile District planned to construct five additional locks, forming a chain of narrow lakes through the “Canal Section.” And in the “River Section,” which stretched south to the mouth of the Black Warrior River, the Mobile District was to build locks and dams near Aberdeen and Columbus, Mississippi, and near Aliceville and Gainesville, Alabama, creating a series of shallow lakes linked by wider and straighter river segments. The completed Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway would constitute a level water route about 250 miles long.

Although Pres. Richard Nixon turned the first official spade of earth in May 1971, a number of other hurdles still needed to be overcome. The Corps of Engineers had yet to set long-term construction schedules or complete the required environmental studies. The Corps spent more than a decade conducting those studies, changing construction designs to minimize damage when necessary.

In June 1985 the Corps of Engineers, Mobile District, officially opened the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, the country’s first large interdisciplinary cultural resource management program. It served as a model from which other federal and state agencies built programs committed to the protection and preservation of the nation’s historic resources.

As planned, the Tennessee-Tombigbee has become the preferred route for transporting large and heavy finished products and raw materials between the Gulf of Mexico and the American heartland. Using the waterway instead of the Mississippi-Ohio River system reduces fuel consumption and lowers shipping costs, with fewer marginal costs, less pollution, and one-tenth the rate of accidents of highways and railroads. Commercial tonnage transported along the waterway has steadily increased, and by the second decade of the twenty-first century, the waterway carried as much as 1.2 billion ton-miles of commerce each year at an annual savings of nearly one hundred million dollars in transportation costs. In addition, the Waterway Development Authority claims that more than five billion dollars worth of industry has sprung up or expanded in the waterway region since its completion. Between 1996 and 2008 the waterway created more than 138,000 jobs nationwide.

New recreational opportunities have also flourished, including world-class fishing, hunting, campgrounds, and natural history. In addition to the 46,000 acres managed by the Corps of Engineers, the Waterway Authority has designated 72,500 acres as high-quality habitat for indigenous and migratory wildlife.

Further Reading

  • Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway website, www.tenntom.org
  • US Army Corps of Engineers, Mobile District website, www.sam.usace.army.mil

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date June 4, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update February 3, 2018