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20 years later, Tenn-Tom continues economic, tourist boon

Columbus — It took 12 years to build, longer than that to get approved, and when completed, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was the largest earth-moving project in the history of the world.

An engineering marvel, the 234-mile long system, a 175-foot deep canal connecting the Tennessee River with the Tombigbee, features 10 locks and dams. Between 310 and 350 million cubic yards of earth were excavated to build the waterway, dwarfing the 210 million cubic yards removed to build the Panama Canal.

“It was a massive, massive project,” said Don Walden, the first and only administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority since it officially opened, who is retiring at the end of June. “Once each lock and dam was completed, they began to close the river and fill in the lakes. That part only took a matter of days.”

Initially, the Army Corps of Engineers began working on the “Tenn-Tom” from the south to the north. Because of the magnitude of the $1.1-billion project, workers were dispatched to dig from both ends toward the middle. On the foggy morning of December 12, 1984, 12 years to the day after construction started, politicians held a ceremony at the Stennis Lock and Dam near Columbus. Several days earlier, engineers had removed the final plug at Amory and blessed the mixing of the waters.

“It was surreal looking,” recalled Walden, “to see this big dragline chewing up the last remaining part.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary for the official opening of the waterway, which has been an economic and tourist boon for its riverside neighbors, particularly Columbus, a city of 25,000-plus located less than 100 miles from Birmingham and about 130 miles from Jackson.

“Even though it’s manmade, I’ve often described the Tenn-Tom as a bonafide natural asset in both sporting and economics,” said Russell Snapp of The Boat Gallery, a boat dealer in Columbus. “It’s something a lot of us overlook the luxury of having.”

Snapp attributes 60% of the company’s annual sales to the waterway, and estimates that 70% is strictly fishing-related.

“We did something on this project that turned out to be divine providence,” said Walden. “Most of the Corps of Engineers projects, particularly of this size, such as the Arkansas Waterway, had recreational facilities follow the actual project construction. Campgrounds and boat launching ramps were still being built 15 years later on the Arkansas project. We didn’t want that to happen so we pushed hard, and successfully got Congress to appropriate funds for recreational facilities as the waterway was being built. When the Tenn-Tom was completed, we had essentially $50 million of some of the most modern recreational facilities anywhere in the nation along the waterway. It immediately began to attract a lot of people.”

Every year, about three million visitor days of recreational use are attributed to the waterway, providing an economic punch of $50 million to $150 million, depending on the multiplier formula used.

Seven class-A campgrounds dot the riverbanks. Ten lakes provide more than 44,000 surface acres of water, with Columbus representing the most-visited pool. Wildlife densely populate the more than 180,000 acres of lands and shallow water that saturate the perimeters in Alabama and Mississippi. Eight marinas service the canal, which is heavily traveled by multi-million dollar pleasure boats on seasonal journeys between the Great Lakes and Florida.

“The waterway is a tremendous asset to the boating infrastructure in middle America,” said Chuck Bigelow, co-owner of Columbus Marina, which he and his wife, Barbara, opened five years ago. “The Columbus pool is a tremendous fishing area. We host 23 bass tournaments every year, drawing some of the top bass fishermen in the U.S.”

In all, the waterway hosts more than 100 bass tournaments annually, with championships aired on ESPN.

Even though the waterway has helped attract more than $5 billion of new and expanded industry, especially in Northeast Mississippi and West Alabama, and played a key role in luring SteelCorr to build a $700-million plant in the Golden Triangle, there has been a lack of private investment in recreation and tourism venues.

“That’s been one of my biggest disappointments,” said Walden. “If tourism is going to continue to grow, it will have to be done on the basis of more investments by the private sector or states or counties because the federal government has essentially spent all it’s going to on the Tenn-Tom.”

Riverside residential development is also ripe for the picking, especially around Columbus.

“Waterfront homes represent an emerging market,” said Doris Hardy, broker/owner of Century 21 Doris Hardy and Associates in Columbus. “We need to encourage more builders and developers in the private sector to provide people with greater housing options.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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