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Boating the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway

Boaters love shortcuts (think Panama Canal), which often save time, gas, and headaches. That’s why the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, which links the Gulf of Mexico with the Tennessee River, is so popular with boaters heading north or south.

Boaters heading to and from southern winter waters often use the “Tenn-Tom” (as it’s typically called) to cut time off their trip. Commercial vessels often do the same. The boating distance from the Gulf of Mexico to Knoxville, Tennessee is cut by about 600 miles, while the mileage from northwest Florida to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is cut by around 400 miles.

Originally conceived in the early-1700s and first surveyed by the federal government in 1874, the Tenn-Tom wasn’t actually brought to fruition until 1984. 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). It was the largest civil works project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has ever done and it is five times longer than the Panama Canal. While the original budget in 1874 was $1.7 million, the final bill was almost $2 billion.

The actual run from the Gulf starts with a 217-mile section that is technically not part of the Waterway, but is typically included in coverage of a trip totaling about 451 miles (including its two additional locks). One of the additional benefits of the Tenn-Tom is that it’s generally a ‘slack-water’ run, as compared to the nearby (and alternate) Mississippi or other more open-water trips. Though commercial vessels do ply the Tenn-Tom (especially during Mississippi drought or flood times), the average number of vessels is between two and three daily. May and October are the most popular months, mirroring the migrations north and south.

The initial stretch goes from Mobile Bay to Demopolis. It’s generally wide, deep, and uninhabited, so it’s best to stop at one of the marinas in the area for gas, supplies, and updates for boaters doing the Tenn-Tom. A booklet published by the Tenn-Tom Waterway Development Authority (see below), Boating on the Tenn-Tom, provides details about marinas near Mobile and the limited services (there are a few additional marinas) further up toward Demopolis.

This river quickly becomes very quiet right out of Mobile. After Mile 8.3, there are no services again until Mile 79.9 at Lady’s Landing. The first lock is at Mile 116.6 in Coffeeville, where the river changes from slightly tidal to virtually unchanged. Just north, quaint Bobby’s Fish Camp (Mile 118.7) has limited friendly facilities. Given this, there are lots of anchoring opportunities throughout this wide section. The navigation charts from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (see below) are crucial for this and other boating matters.

The official Tenn-Tom starts above Demopolis and is much more developed than the lower section. Demopolis is a nice southern town in which to dock for day or two, with full marina facilities and lots to see and do. More than a dozen marinas await to the north, making this section more flexible for boaters. It’s basically divided into three sections: the 149-mile river section (to Amory, Mississippi); the 46-mile canal section (to Bay Springs; and the 39-mile Divide Cut, linking the Tombigbee and the Tennessee.

While passing through what’s been called “Faulkner country,” stops along the river section can include: Gainesville (Mile 265); the interesting Tom Bevill Visitor Center (Mile 306.8), run by the Corps and including an old snagboat, an antebellum museum, and interesting artifacts from construction of the Tenn-Tom; and Columbus (Mile 357), the largest city along the Tenn-Tom.

The canal section starts just north of Aberdeen and includes lots of twists and turns, which were completely man-made. There are lots of marinas along this stretch, as well as a Waterway Authority visitor center at Bay Springs Lake (Mile 412.2), just above the lock. Interesting displays cover the construction and history of the Tenn-Tom, including a large-scale model of it.

The Divide Cut took 1,400 workers doing two 10-hour shifts a day to move more than 150 million yards of earth. Things of interest along this stretch include the awe-inspiring Bay Springs Lock, which is 84 feet high; nearby Natchez Trace Parkway; and Tupelo, 16 miles from the Parkway and the birthplace of Elvis Presley. The lakes at both ends are large and great for pleasure cruising, fishing, and more.

From the end at Pickwick Lake, boaters can head either east upriver through Alabama and to Chattanooga or (more typically) north and downriver through Tennessee and Kentucky to the river’s confluence with the Ohio (and points north). Either way, the Tenn-Tom makes exploring or passing through this part of the U.S. a boater’s dream shortcut.


For charts, contact the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Mobile District Office, Attn: Map Sales, P.O. Box 2288, Mobile, AL 36628; tel. 334/441-5631. For general boating information (including the booklet mentioned above), contact the Corps or the Tenn-Tom Waterway Development Authority at P.O. Drawer 671, Columbus, MS 39703; tel. 601/328-3286.

The Southern Waterway Guide (tel. 800/233-3359, www.waterwayguide.com, regularly $39.95, but just $35.96 for ABA members) is a great resource for Tenn-Tom cruising and much more. A huge help for this and other ABA overviews, they also publish the Mid-Atlantic Waterway Guide and the Northern Waterway Guide.