Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway

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Map of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway (popularly known as the Tenn-Tom) is a 234-mile (377-kilometer) man-made waterway that extends from the Tennessee River to the junction of the Black Warrior-Tombigbee River system near Demopolis, Alabama, United States. The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway links commercial navigation from the nation’s midsection to the Gulf of Mexico. The major features of the waterway are 10 locks and dams, a 175-foot (53 m) deep cut between the Tombigbee River watershed and the Tennessee River watershed, and 234 miles (377 km) of navigation channels.[1] The ten locks are 9 by 110 by 600 feet (2.7 m × 33.5 m × 182.9 m) the same dimension as the locks on the Mississippi above Lock and Dam 26 at Alton, Illinois.[2][3] Under construction for twelve years by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway was completed in December 1984 at a total cost of nearly $2 billion.[4]

The Tenn-Tom encompasses 17 public ports and terminals, 110,000 acres (450 km2) of land, and another 88,000 acres (360 km2) managed by state conservation agencies for wildlife habitat preservation and recreational use.[4]

Supported by southern Congressmen, the Tenn-Tom Waterway was widely criticized at its creation as an example of exorbitant "pork barrel" spending. However, in succeeding years it has become an example of government investment in infrastructure yielding economic benefits over time.

Early history and construction[edit]

First proposed in the Colonial period, the idea for a commercial waterway link between the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers did not receive serious attention until the advent of steamboat traffic in the early nineteenth century. As steamboat efficiency gains caused water transport costs to decline, in 1875, for the first time, engineers surveyed a potential canal route.[5] However, they issued a negative report at that point in time, emphasizing that prohibitive cost estimates still prevented the project from economic feasibility.[5]

Enthusiasm for the project languished until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The development of the Tennessee River by TVA, especially the construction of the Pickwick Lock and Dam in 1938, helped decrease Tenn-Tom's potential economic costs and increase its potential benefits.[5] As early as 1941 the proposal was combined with other waterways, such as the St. Lawrence seaway, with the aim of building broader political support.[6] Additionally, political candidates began to favor the construction of the waterway for political reasons, that is, in order to appeal to the voters in the South, rather than for economic reasons. In the early 1960s it was proposed that the canal could be created by use of atomic blasts.[7]

As part of his "Southern Strategy" for reelection, President Nixon included $1 million in the Corps of Engineers' 1971 budget to start construction of the Tenn-Tom.[8] Funding shortages and legal challenges delayed construction until December 1972, but President Nixon’s efforts nevertheless initiated official Tenn-Tom waterway construction.[8]

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began work on the project in 1972. During the construction process, land excavation reached about 175 feet (53 m) in depth. The Tenn-Tom is the largest earth-moving project in world history, requiring the excavation of nearly 310 million cubic yards of soil.[5] (This is the equivalent of more than 100-million dump truck loads and more dirt than required in the Panama Canal.) The project was completed on December 12, 1984, nearly two years ahead of schedule.[9]


The $2 billion in necessary funding for the Tenn-Tom waterway was repeatedly attacked by elected representatives and political organizations. Opponents asserted that the estimated economic benefits of the waterway by the Corps of Engineers were unsupportable based on projected traffic volume. Immediately after his election, President Jimmy Carter announced a plan to slash Tenn-Tom federal funding.[8] However, over 6,500 waterway supporters attended a public hearing held in Columbus, Mississippi as part of Carter's review of the waterway.[8] This overwhelming outpouring of public support for the project led to the President withdrawing his opposition.

Additionally, a series of lawsuits were filed by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to halt construction of the waterway.[10] Railroad companies, who served as a major transport alternative and stood to potentially lose the most value from its creation, asserted that the waterway construction violated the National Environmental Policy Act.[10] Nevertheless, federal courts ruled in favor of the project.[10]

An article published in the Tuscaloosa News on January 9, 2005 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Canal noted that the canal carried just 7 million tons of cargo in 2004.[2] The Mississippi, in contrast, carried 307 million tons of cargo in 2004. This is one quarter of the 28 million tons proponents of the canal had projected for the canal's first year. Proponents predicted the canal would carry 99 million tons by 2035.

Economic impact[edit]

When completed the Tenn-Tom waterway’s total cost was $1.992 billion, including non-federal costs, which led some political and economic commentators to deride the Tenn-Tom waterway as "pork-barrel politics at its worst.”[5] For the first few years after its creation these criticisms appeared somewhat valid. The Tennessee–Tombigbee Waterway had opened in the midst of an economic recession in the barge business which resulted in initially disappointingly low use of the waterway.[10]

The 1988 drought, however, closed the Mississippi River and shifted traffic to the Tenn-Tom canal.[8] This coincided with an economic turnaround on the Tennessee-Tombigbee corridor, wherein trade tonnage and commercial investment have increased steadily over several years.

The two primary commodities shipped via the Tenn-Tom are coal and timber products, together comprising about 70 percent of total commercial shipping on the waterway.[11] The Tenn-Tom also provides access to over 34 million acres (140,000 km2) of commercial forests and approximately two-thirds of all recoverable coal reserves in the nation. Industries that utilize these natural resources have found the Waterway to be their most cost-efficient mode of transportation.[11] Other popular Tenn-Tom trade products include grain, gravel, sand, and iron.

According to a 2009 Troy University study, since 1996 the United States has realized a direct, indirect, and induced economic impact of nearly $43 billion due to the existence and usage of the Tenn-Tom Waterway, and it has directly created more than 29,000 jobs.[11] Without the Waterway as a viable source of transportation, an average of 284,000 additional truckloads per year would be required to handle the materials currently being shipped.[11]

Divide Cut[edit]

Divide Cut seen from the Holcut Memorial site.

The Divide Cut (34°55′0″N 88°14′31″W / 34.91667°N 88.24194°W / 34.91667; -88.24194 (Divide Cut)) is a 29 mi (47 km) canal that makes the connection to the Tennessee River. It connects Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee to Bay Springs Lake, at Mississippi Highway 30. The cut carries the waterway between the Tennessee River watershed, which eventually empties into the Ohio River, and the Tombigbee River watershed, which eventually empties into the Gulf of Mexico at Mobile.

Pickwick Lake is a popular location for water sports such as waterskiing and wakeboarding.

For construction of the Divide Cut, the entire town of Holcut, Mississippi had to be removed and demolished. Today, the Holcut Memorial lies alongside the waterway on the previous site of the town.

Locks and dams[edit]

The waterway is composed of ten locks (listed below from north to south along the waterway):



  1. ^ “Tenn-Tom Waterway Key Components.” 2009. Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority. Available at <http://www.tenntom.org/about/ttwkeycomponents.htm>.
  2. ^ a b Johnny Kampis (January 9, 2005). "20-year anniversary of Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway: Canal's success debated". Tuscaloosa News. 02, 2013 Archived Check |archiveurl= value (help) from the original on January 2, 2013. The Tenn-Tom is at least 300 feet wide over its entire length, but the inside dimensions of its 10 locks are 110 feet wide by 600 feet long ... The locks on the Mississippi River are the same dimensions as those on the Tenn-Tom, but none of them are south of St. Louis, which means commercial traffic isn't slowed down by navigating a lock system. 
  3. ^ Lynn Seldon. "Boating the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway". Retrieved January 2, 2013. While early plans called for a canal 28 feet wide and four feet deep, with 44 locks, the 234-mile Waterway was built with a minimum width of 300 feet, a depth of nine feet (or more), and just 10 large locks (all 600 feet long and 110 feet wide). 
  4. ^ a b “About the Tenn-Tom Waterway.” 2009. Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority. Available at <http://www.tenntom.org/about/ttwhistory3.htm>.
  5. ^ a b c d e Van West, Carroll. Tennessee History. University of Tennessee Press, 1998.
  6. ^ TheSt. PetersburgTimes, April 13, 1941, pg 10
  7. ^ The Florence (Alabama) Times, September 21, 1960, pg 3
  8. ^ a b c d e Ward, Rufus. Tombigbee River. History Press, 2010.
  9. ^ Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority.
  10. ^ a b c d Ferris, William. "Encyclopedia of Southern History." University of North Carolina, 1989.
  11. ^ a b c d “Economic Impacts of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.” 2009. Troy University.

External links[edit]