Somewhere near what is now the midpoint of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway (Lowndes-Monroe Counties, Mississippi area) Hernando DeSoto and his band of a thousand men crossed in 1541 enroute from Florida to the Mississippi River. The first known recommendation to build a water transportation route connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers was made by a French explorer, the Marquis de Montcalm, to Louis XV of France in about 1760 or 1770. At that time, rivers were the only practical means of transporting supplies and commerce from the coastal settlements to the hinterlands. 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 it was the arrival of the iron horse that brought the end to the steamboat era.
The first engineering investigation of the waterway was conducted 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 formally 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 five 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 eventually ruled in favor of the project.
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.
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.
After 12 years of construction at a total cost of nearly $2 billion, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was completed on December 12, 1984. 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 from as far away as Paducah, Ky and Gunterville, AL. 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 celebrations 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 recourses in the federal courts as well as aggressively lobbied the Congress to stop the project. In some cases, they nearly succeeded. While some may give the credit to divine providence, it was the dedication and untiring efforts of many waterway supporters that not only overcame this opposition but other hurdles and helped culminate this dream and hope of many generations. The contributions of many of these leaders have been well documented but regrettably history will not record the labors of many others who helped make the waterway a reality.