HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS A connecting link between the two rivers was considered by the French explorer to be needed if the French were successful in settling this region of the south. In 1810, the citizens of Knox County, Tennessee (current location of Knoxville) petitioned the U.S. Congress to build the waterway that would shorten the distance by more than 800 miles for trade with New Orleans, Mobile and other ports along the Gulf of Mexico. Shortly after Alabama joined the union in 1819, the state hired an engineer to survey its rivers, including a possible connection with the Tennessee River. From the early 1800’s to about 1910, paddle driven steamboats plied the free flowing Tombigbee River carrying passengers and goods as far north as Amory, Mississippi and returning with tottering stacks of cotton bales, logs and other commodities. These vessels could operate only during those times of the year when river stages were high.
Many sank or were destroyed by boiler explosions and fires but the arrival of the iron horse brought the end to this era. The first engineering investigation of the waterway was during the Grant Administration in 1874-75. The study concluded that the U.S. Corps of Engineers could build such a project that included a total of 43 locks and a channel four feet deep; but, its commercial limitations made it impractical. Another investigation of the project was conducted in 1913. This study proposed a waterway with a six -foot channel and a total of 65 low lift locks. Congress, however, found its cost to be prohibitive and shelved the project.Other studies were conducted by the Corps in 1923, 1935, 1938 and 1945 that eventually led to congressional approval of the waterway in 1946.
The development of the Tennessee River by TVA, especially the construction of the Pickwick Lock and Dam in 1938, help decrease Tenn-Tom’s costs and increase its benefits. Strong opposition from key members of the Congress from other regions of the nation and from the railroad industry prevented any further development of the waterway until 1968 when President Johnson first budgeted funds to start the project’s engineering and design. It is said that President Kennedy had agreed to endorse the Tenn-Tom and had scheduled a meeting with the waterway’s congressional leaders to formerly announce his support for its construction but the meeting never occurred because of his tragic and untimely death. 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. On May 25, 1971, the President traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to participate with then Governor George Wallace and other elected officials from four states to symbolically start construction of the long awaited Tennessee-Tombigbee.
However, the actual start of construction was delayed until December 1972 because of a lawsuit filed against the waterway by a small group of environmentalists. The federal courts ruled in favor of the project. Immediately after assuming office, President Jimmy Carter announced plans to terminate funding for 19 water resource projects and to study terminating 13 more, including the Tenn-Tom. Over 6500 waterway supporters attended a public hearing held in Columbus, Mississippi on March 29, 1977 as part of Carter’s review of the waterway. This overwhelming outpouring of public support for the project led to the President withdrawing his opposition. Later the Carter Administration selected the Tennessee-Tombigbee as a national demonstration program of how large public works projects can favorably impact rural America. During its long history, no President has ever opposed the Tenn-Tom. A second lawsuit was filed by L&N Railroad (now CSX) and the Environmental Defense Fund of New York in November 1976 to stop construction of the waterway.
The plaintiffs alleged that the Corps had violated the National Environmental Policy Act in designing and building the project and had abused its discretionary authorities in altering the project. This litigation lasted for some 7 years but the federal courts again ruled in favor of the project. After 12 years of construction at a total cost of nearly $2 billion, the Tennessee -Tombigbee Waterway was completed on December 12, 1984, when the last plug of earth was removed from the waterway channel at Amory, Mississippi allowing the long awaited mixing of the waters of the Tombigbee with that of the Tennessee River. The Tenn-Tom officially opened to commerce on January 10, 1985 when the Towboat, Eddie Waxler, transporting nearly 2.7 million gallons of petroleum products, made its maiden voyage on the waterway. A lottery was held to select the first commercial tow to transit the waterway.
The dedication of the completion of the waterway was held on June 1, 1985. Record hot temperatures did not deter some 100,000 people, including many Members of Congress, Governors, and other elected officials, from attending ceremonies in Columbus, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama that day. During the previous week, numerous other celebrations were held throughout the four-state waterway corridor as far away as Paducah, Ky. One newspaper reporter observed that, “such public exuberance that had been displayed at the Tenn-Tom events had not occurred in this region since those held at the end of World War II”. The successful completion of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway had to overcome many hurdles and pitfalls during its long history.
Even after construction was well underway, a small but well organized group of opponents exhausted all legal resources in the federal courts as well as aggressively lobbied the Congress to stop the project. According to information provided, in some cases, they nearly succeeded. While some may give the credit to divine intervention, it was the dedication and untiring efforts of many waterway supporters that not only overcame this opposition, but also other hurdles, and helped culminate this dream and hope of many generations. THE TENNESSEE-TOMBIGBEE WATERWAY DEVELOPMENT AUTHORITY The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority was authorized by the U.S. Congress in 1958 as an interstate compact, consisting of the States of Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Florida was also a member from 1967 to 1990.
The Authority serves as the regional sponsor of the Tenn-Tom and addresses both growth opportunities as well as potential impediments to the waterway’s public benefits. The chairmanship of the compact rotates annually among the four governors. Governor Fordice of Mississippi is Chairman during 1998. Each governor appoints five citizens to represent their state’s interests in the activities of the Authority. This regional agency played a key role in garnering the necessary grassroots and political support to get the project built. The organization worked very closely with federal agencies and the U.S. Congress during its 12 years of construction. Since completion of the waterway, it now devotes its resources toward promoting the development of the waterway and its economic and trade potential. TENN-TOM FUNDING Since the 1840’s, the Federal Government has had the responsibility for operating and maintaining the nation’s inland waterways.
In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to meet these responsibilities because of a lack of funding. For example, the President’s 1999 budget is nearly $200 million less than needed to adequately maintain our waterways. Unless the U.S. Congress provides more funds, the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway will be under funded by more than $5 million . The U.S.
Senate approved $18.2 million for the Tenn-Tom which is $1.2 million more than that recommended by the President but nearly $4 million less than needed. Fortunately, The U.S. House has approved $22 million for the project which will adequately maintain the waterway. Efforts are underway to get the Senate to accede to the house when the Conference Committee takes up the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill in August or early September. If the House recommendations are not finally approved, over $4 million of scheduled and needed maintenance will be indefinitely deferred until 2000 and beyond for the second year in a row. The physical integrity of this $2 billion investment will begin to suffer.
WATERWAY CONSTRUCTION The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is the largest water resource project ever built in the United States. It is one of the engineering marvels of the world. The major features of the waterway are 10 locks and dams; a 175-foot deep canal connecting the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee River watershed;and, 234 miles of navigation channels. The federal project was designed and constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with annual appropriations from the U.S. Congress.
Corps employees performed most all of the engineering and design work and served as the construction manager for the project. Actual construction was accomplished by private contractors selected to build specific components of the project by competitive bids. The Mobile District of the Corps was responsible for the southern 195 miles of the waterway, including 9 of the locks and dams. The remaining 29 miles of the project, including the fourth highest single lift lock in the nation and the massive excavation of the so-called Divide Cut, were assigned to the Corps’ Nashville District. The Tenn-Tom is the largest earth moving project in history,requiring the excavation of nearly 310 million cubic yards of soil or the equivalent of more than 100 million dump truck loads.
Construction began in December 1972 with the building of the Howell Heflin dam (located in Gainesville LID) at the southern end of the waterway. A total of 2.2 million cubic yards of concrete and 33,000 tons of reinforcing steel were used in building the 10 locks. The 110 x 600-foot lock chambers hold an average of about 20 million gallons of water, an amount equivalent to that used each day by a city with a population of about 60,000. A series of culverts, resembling large tuning forks as shown above, were constructed in the bottom of each lock to allow the lock chambers to empty or fill in about 20 minutes without any turbulence or whirl pools that might cause safety concerns for boats being locked. The safe raising or lowering of the water levels inside the chamber is most important since some of the commercial tows consist of shipments of as much as 6 million gallons of fuel as well as chemicals.
Waterways are the safest mode for moving these kinds of commodities. The 10 locks are needed to raise and lower boats and commercial vessels a total of 341 feet, the difference in elevation between the southern and northern ends of the waterway. A lesser number of locks could have been built but this would have resulted in more land flooded caused by the larger impoundments behind the higher locks and dams and thus more environmental damages. The Tennessee-Tombigbee was the first large water resource project constructed in accordance with the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA). Major design changes were made to better accommodate environmental quality as mandated by NEPA.
An example of these changes in the project’s design is the nearly 50-mile levee shown above on the left side of the photo. The levee was added to prevent the destruction of prime wildlife habitat along the upper reaches of the Tombigbee River caused by permanent flooding from the impoundments of 5 locks. One of the most challenging features of the waterway to design and construct was the so called Divide Cut, a 27-mile canal that connects the Tenn-Tom with Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River. To build this navigation canal, which is 280 feet wide and 12 feet deep, required the removal of 150 million cubic yards of earth. Seven private contractors, using conventional equipment, completed this awesome task in less than 8 years. The deepest cut was 175 feet with an average ex …