Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

Under construction from 1972 to 1985 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is a 234-mile thoroughfare extending from the Tennessee River to the junction of the Black Warrior-Tombigbee River system near Demopolis, Alabama. It links commercial navigation from the nation’s midsection to the Gulf of Mexico. First proposed during the colonial period, the idea received no serious attention until the advent of steamboat traffic in the early nineteenth century. In 1875 engineers surveyed a potential canal route but issued a negative report and prohibitive cost estimates.

Enthusiasm for the project languished until the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Revived in 1938, the project passed in the 1946 Rivers and Harbors Act. Aided by the 1958 creation of the Tennessee Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority, an interstate compact headed by the governors of Tennessee and four other states, the project encountered further delays because of funding shortages and legal challenges. Finally, construction began in December 1972.

The Corps of Engineers divided work on the project, the largest in its history, between the Mobile and Nashville Districts. The Mobile District assumed responsibility for the 168-mile river section with four locks and dams that lay between Demopolis and Amory, Mississippi, and a 45-mile section with five locks from Amory to Bay Springs. The Nashville District had design and construction responsibility for the 40-mile divide section from Bay Springs Lock & Dam north to the Tennessee River. Although the northern section is shorter in length, about half the 307 million cubic yards of earth removal occurred there. Excavation reached 175 feet in depth. Bay Springs Lock, with the highest lift of the ten locks constructed, overcame 84 of the 341-foot difference between Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River and Demopolis. Nashville employees also relocated two railroads, acquired 28,400 acres of land, and relocated approximately 170 people from the area.

In the early years of the project, the Nashville District, under the leadership of Euclid Moore and Richard Russell, successfully met and resolved construction challenges relating to engineering and environmental issues. Among these were groundwater removal, erosion and sedimentation, disposal of soils, and revegetation. Major excavation began in 1978 and was hampered by excessively wet weather and rising fuel prices. Construction of Bay Springs Lock commenced the following year. Work on the Divide section continued despite a series of close congressional funding votes and repeated court challenges from environmental and railroad lobbies.

Dedication of the Nashville District’s Divide section took place in May 1984; the Mobile District’s ceremony followed a year later. Total costs, including construction, real estate acquisition, relocations, and labor, reached nearly two billion dollars.

The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway opened two years ahead of schedule in the midst of an economic recession in the barge business–a factor that initially resulted in a disappointingly low use of the waterway. In 1988, when drought closed the Mississippi River, however, traffic shifted to the canal. Tonnage and commercial investment along the Tennessee-Tombigbee corridor have increased steadily in the past several years.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018