The amazing fact of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is that while nobody sees the same thing, everybody sees something great when they look at this 234-mile water route linking the Tennessee River in southern Tennessee with the Tombigbee River in central Alabama. Business sees the Waterway as an advantage that saves $90 million annually in reduced transportation costs, while also lowering local rail costs by as much as twenty percent. Environmentalists see that barge shipping slashes annual fuel use by as much as 20 million gallons over truck shipping, with nitrogen oxide emissions cut by two-thirds, hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions squeezed to a mere one-seventh and one-ninth what they would be with truck traffic. And recreationalists? They see opportunities everywhere.
Whether you make it a lazy float trip, or you light out for land attractions along the way — whether you boat, fish, camp, hunt, hike, sightsee or shop — the Tenn-Tom is the perfect getaway, stretching through the Mississippi Hills from Pickwick Lake in the north through Columbus in the south, with lots of great starting points in between.
Because the Waterway is the preferred route for large pleasure boats making the trek from the upper Midwest down to the Gulf Coast, marina development along the Tenn-Tom is superb, including America's largest freshwater marina at Aqua Yacht Harbor. You may want to start your adventure there, where you can go north to explore the monster lake of Pickwick spreading across three states, or you can head south for the Mississippi Hills.
No boat? No worries.
The Tenn-Tom Wildlife Mitigation Project, recognized as one of the nation's finest, means that of the nearly 200,000 acres of public lands the waterway encompasses, nearly half of those acres include beautiful hardwood bottomland, purchased from willing homeowners at a cost of $93 million and intensively managed for wildlife habitat.
Another $50 million was spent to develop lakes, parks, campgrounds, white sand beaches and other leisure attractions surrounding the Waterway for a comprehensive approach to recreation that takes in everything from hiking to hunting to bird watching. You don't have to float to have a great time along the Tenn Tom.
Still not sure where to start? Maybe the best place to begin is back about 250 years ago, to see how this engineering marvel, the largest project in the history of the U.S. Corps of Engineering, came to fruition.
Moving heaven--and tons of earth--to make the rivers meet.
Back in the 1770s when rivers were the only means of transporting goods on any large scale, the French explorer Montcalm realized that a canal connecting the northern Tennessee River and the southern Tombigbee River would create a route extending all the way from the middle of the country to the gulf in the far south. Later, the invention of the steamboat spurred more interest in a canal, and later still President U.S. Grant ordered a U. S. Corps of Engineers study of the possibility. But it wasn't until the 1930s and TVA's creation of Pickwick Lock and Dam (for the purpose of power generation) that the price of the Waterway became feasible. Even then, it would take another 40 odd years for the Corps of Engineers to begin construction, and another 12 years after that to finish.
While some environmentalists opposed the Waterway's construction, by its completion in 1984, as the first water resource project undertaken under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Tenn Tom had earned plaudits for innovative design features and careful soil disposal, particularly on the Divide Cut, the 29-mile canal connecting Pickwick Lake with the Tennessee River, a massive project involving the removal of 150 million cubic yards of earth, one and a half times what was excavated to create the Suez Canal.
The Divide Cut is another great starting point on the Waterway. On land, you can see it and learn all about it at the Divide Cut overlook park and interpretive center, one of a half dozen museums and educational centers situated on or near the seven Waterway locks located in the Mississippi Hills. At the nearby Crow's Neck Environmental Education and Conference Center, thousands of schoolchildren from three different states enjoy an annual week of natural wonders and learning.
Here in this stretch of the Tenn Tom, you're also just a hop, skipped rock and eastward jump from all the fun at the Tishomingo State Park, with hiking, camping, rock climbing, canoeing and more. To the west is the town of Corinth, home of the largest and best-preserved set of Civil War earthworks in the nation. So drop anchor to explore a little, or keep heading south, into Bay Springs Lake and more engineering magic.