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The 234 mile Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, known as the Tenn-Tom, is the largest public works project that nobody has heard of outside the four states it flows through. It’s mapped in guides and charts as part of a longer 470 mile route that connects the Tennessee River to the Gulf of Mexico, measured from downtown Mobile, AL to its junction with the Tennessee River just east of Paducah, KY. As a water route from the Ohio or upper Mississippi Rivers it lops off as much as 800 miles compared to the lower Mississippi route.
Before railroads and interstate highways waterways were the primary means of transport. In 1803, the Louisiana Purchase started as a bid to buy New Orleans from the French to open the Mississippi River to the Gulf, an access the Spanish had turned off and on when they owned it. But Napoleon saw an opportunity to dump a headache and fund his effort to conquer Europe; the rest is history. In 1825, the Erie Canal overnight transformed the access to the Ohio Valley.
With the statehood of Mississippi and Alabama in 1817 and 1819, politicians, the nursemaids of any project this size, naturally looked at connecting the new states to Kentucky and Tennessee by waterway. The connection took shape over a century in a disjointed series of river, harbor, TVA and Corps of Engineers projects authorized from 1884 to 1946 with the most ambitious part, the Tenn-Tom itself, completed in 1982.
The Tom Bevill Visitor Center, next to the lock of the same name, offers a remarkable history of the project and the steamboat era, including a restored snagboat. The Mobile and Tombigbee Rivers which comprise the southern part were plied extensively by steamboats in the early 1800s, at least in the rainy season, November through March, and by Native Americans for eons before that. Unlike the majestic steamboats of Mark Twain and the Mississippi, these were smaller, single side wheelers with an average life of 4 years given the conditions they operated in. Stern wheelers came later in the century and were typically bigger at 175 feet long by 30-35 feet wide and drew about 6 feet of water fully loaded. Steam boilers providing 700-800 horsepower propelled them at about 10 miles per hour, faster downriver, slower upriver. With a crew of 30 they could carry 1,500 bales of cotton and 80 passengers.
Railroads began their inexorable process of running steamboats out of business in the 1850s. Farmers’ and cotton growers’ anger over subsequent railroad price gouging, especially during the 1873-1893 ‘Long Depression’, prompted the Corps of Engineers first improvements on the Tombigbee. Low cost snagging, clearing, cutting overhead trees and removing debris was proposed in 1875 but not funded until 1878 – some things in government haven’t changed much.
Between 1895 and 1915, three locks and dams (part of a system of 17 constructed between Mobile and Birmingham) were built to provide a minimum 6 foot deep channel. Even if the improvements could have given the steamboats a chance, it was too little, too late. By the 1890s river towns were dying and by the 1920s the steamboat era had vanished into history. Prompted by an emerging tug and barge business, these original locks were replaced by the Demopolis Lock and Dam in 1955 and Coffeeville Lock and Dam in 1960, still in use today.
The northern entrance to the potential waterway was anticipated in the development of the Tennessee River by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the 1930s. The TVA was part of the alphabet soup of organizations including the WPA, CCC, PWA, CWA, FERA put together by Franklin Roosevelt to spend America out of the Great Depression and which changed the role of federal government in ways we’re still fighting over today. The strategic placement of the Pickwick Lock & Dam, completed in 1938, flooded the tributary Yellow River by design as it was the closest possible north-south connection with the Tombigbee.
That final connection, the Tenn-Tom itself, was authorized in 1946 but construction didn’t start until funds were authorized in 1971, generally recognized as part of Richard Nixon’s southern strategy to turn the South Republican after Democratic President Lyndon Johnson had embraced the Civil Rights movement.
Depending on your perspective, the Tenn-Tom is either the biggest boondoggle in American history with the obligatory naming of dams, locks, bridges and wilderness areas for the politicians who pushed for it, or an engineering miracle. The reality is that it is an impressive engineering feat: in total it moved a third more material – dirt – than the construction of the Panama Canal. But as a through route to the Gulf, the barge tonnage never materialized except in 1988 when a drought closed the lower Mississippi. Today, local barge traffic is common if not what was anticipated, but as a through route, the Tenn-Tom is mostly used by the annual migration of yacht snow birders going south in the fall and returning north in the spring and by Great Loopers who find it more convenient than the lower Mississippi.
The Army Corps of Engineers built the Tenn-Tom and divides it into three sections: The Divide, Canal and River Sections, their names reflecting both what they are and how they were created.The 39 mile Divide Section connects Pickwick Lake in the Tennessee Valley to Big Springs Lake in the Tombigbee Valley, all at the same water level - like two big bathtubs in the same room that some kid with engineering dreams might connect with a big pipe. Though the Corps would probably cringe at this description, this 24 mile cut, from mile 444 to 420, looks like a big, well-manicured ditch. It’s tiered back to a half mile width at the top with scores of ‘Dredge Material Placement Areas’ that can occasionally be glimpsed through the trees evoking images of buried Mayan cities. At water level it’s 280 feet wide with a 9 foot deep channel. It took 8 years to move 1½ times as much dirt as the 120 mile Suez Canal. The Divide section is straight as an arrow, which gives pleasure boaters ample time for anxiety to set in after sighting the occasional tow barge approaching them. At mile 427.5 there’s a lonely memorial to the razed town of Holcut, a reminder of the sacrifices made for these monumental projects.
The whopper 84 foot deep Jamie Whitten Lock at mile 411.9 marks the southern end of the Divide Section. Being lowered in that lock feels like a slow, dark and wet descent into hell. It doesn’t help that it leaks more than any of the other locks. Interestingly, Whitten Lock has no dam or overflow mechanism. It depends on Pickwick Lock & Dam, some 40 miles away on the Tennessee River to control its water level.
The Tenn-Tom was the first large project constructed after the National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969. The terrain is flatter than the Tennessee Valley but original plans for the 46 mile long Canal Section still probably envisioned large dam(s) like those of the TVA era. Instead, to accommodate the NEPA, the Corps built a lower profile canal, 5 locks and a 50 mile levee along the route’s west side with the dug material to separate it from, and protect, the headwaters of the Tombigbee River.
The Canal Section looks very much like the Divide Section just below each lock, straight and narrow. Above the locks, ‘pools’ formed by the levee on the west side and levees or natural embankments on the east, accumulate to provide water to operate the locks. The pools submerge the canal under them. In places the pools look like lakes but boating outside the canal channel can end abruptly and embarrassingly in shallow water.
From a satellite view, the little streams of the Tombigbee watershed look like a bowl of wet spaghetti noodles just over the levee. The Wilkens Pool funnels any extra water into that bowl at mile 376.7. The Corps still owns the land, so it is an undeveloped, impressive and continuing mitigation of the Tenn-Tom construction. Government can get it right if it wants or is forced to.
The Tombigbee finally flows into the waterway at the end of the levee, mile 366.3, marking the southern end of the Canal Section. I boated up the Tombigbee for 2-3 mies in 9-10 feet of water. The nearby town of Amory, MS was the northern limit of steamboats during the steamboat era. The 149 mile River Section flows between Amory and Demopolis, AL at mile 217. In this section the Corps built four locks to deepen the channel and dug about 20 cutoffs to shortening the river by about 30 miles. On a chart, the River Section looks much like the Tombigbee headwaters spaghetti, but with bigger noodles as tributaries flow in and the Tombigbee repeatedly crisscrosses the straightened waterway.
Demopolis, at mile 217, is the southern end of both the River Section and Tenn-Tom project. It’s also where the Black Warrior River – with its own locks and history, joins the Tombigbee and the two take the name Black Warrior-Tombigbee Waterway. From here south to Mobile, the river is largely in its natural, lazy, winding state, with only the 1950s era Demopolis and Coffeeville Lock and Dams to guarantee year round navigation. It has some very inviting beaches and a stop at Bobby’s Fish Camp is a must if only because it’s the only fuel in that long section. The rustic feel and home cooked meals at Bobby’s match the Tombigbee well. And if you want to enjoy the best in southern food and hostility, you’d be hard pressed to beat a meal at Huck’s Place in Columbus, MS or SVH Bistro in Demopolis, AL.
The Alabama River – the third river, along with the Tombigbee and Black Warrior to get the 17 hand built locks from 1895 to 1915 - joins at mile 45 and the waterway becomes the Mobile River. Seems unfair that Tombigbee, a fun, tongue twisting name from the Choctaws, loses its identity just when it’s about to flow into the Gulf.
The Mobile River becomes more of a delta as it approaches Mobile, AL. The 470 mile waterway begins/ends at mile 0 where the Art Deco styled Bankhead Tunnel (U.S. Hwy 90), finished in 1940, goes under the Mobile harbor. A spectacular new bridge finished in 1991 now carries an alternative Hwy 90 across the waterway at mile 3. An even more impressive, or at least bigger, bridge over the harbor is in the works to replace the congested I-90 tunnel.
The waterway is not a stroll through the Antebellum South. The small towns that remain are struggling; museums and historic places are not easy to get to. Local knowledge is necessary to find good restaurants – though you’d be hard pressed to beat the southern food and hostility at Huck’s Place in Columbus, MS or SVH Bistro in Demopolis, AL. Most boater are eager to get through it to the warmth of Florida.
The Ten-Tom deserves better. I’ve tried to organize often confusing and sometimes incorrect information into a readable narrative with some historic perspective for those who might want to look at it closer. I also tip my hat to the Corps of Engineers, maybe the best government entity at fulfilling its mission efficiently and in the Ten-Tom’s case, on budget, though it seems a bit desperate to take credit for bird boxes.