COLUMBUS, Miss. (Feb. 6, 2015) – Thirty years after the dedication of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, officials cut another ribbon today dedicating a museum that provides education outreach and features the value of transportation within the historical inland passageway built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1972 to 1984.
“This particular project is one we’re very proud of,” said Mike Tagert, Mississippi Department of Transportation Northern District commissioner, who gave the keynote address during the ceremony. “With what you have accomplished here today with the museum, and using that as a mechanism and a model in order to communicate the value of the waterway and alternative modes of transportation, it means that our students who live along the waterway are going to have a great sense of pride and dignity knowing the asset that they live with.”
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Transportation Museum opened its doors to dignitaries and guests. They were able to hear from a steamboat captain through an interactive exhibit, learn about the operation of navigation locks, and see displays featuring other facets of the waterway, including recreation activities and wildlife habitats.
Agnes Zaiontz, museum executive director, spent much of the past decade soliciting funding and applying for grants, and working with curators to develop the displays and exhibits in preparation for the grand opening. She said the museum is a great educational resource and the public now has the opportunity to visit and learn about the benefits of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and how the Inland Waterway Transportation System benefits the nation’s movement of commerce.
“Most all of the exhibits are interactive,” Zaiontz said. “We have a lot of history, a lot of scrap books. It’s going to be a fun tour.”
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is the largest civil works project ever constructed in the United States. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mobile and Nashville Districts built the 234-mile waterway that links the Tennessee and Tombigbee Rivers.
Tom Cayce, who retired as the deputy chief of Planning, Programs and Project Management for the Nashville District in 2011, attended the ceremony and toured the museum and said he really enjoyed the whole experience.
“They even have a segment in there where you can ride down the river in a barge,” Cayce said. “I really enjoy seeing things like that. It’s very professionally done. They did a great job.”
Cayce also recalled how two Corps districts worked together as hard and as fast as possible to build the waterway in the 70s and 80s. During the construction, he said he mostly helped with environmental aspects in planning and with budgetary documents and requests in support of the project.
“It was the number one project in our district as well as the Mobile District too,” Cayce said.
The Corps excavated nearly 310 million cubic yards of soil or the equivalent of 100-million dump truck loads during the 12-year project. In comparison, 210-million cubic yards of earth were removed from the Panama Canal.
Don Waldon, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority from 1984 until his retirement in 2005, attended the dedication of the museum as a member of the board, and he recollected about the project being the first large one to be constructed in accordance with the provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.
“A a result of that, we were sued twice essentially by railroads that were opposed to the waterway because of being a competitive mode,” Waldon said.
The project weathered the litigation as well as political and environmental opposition. Ultimately, design changes accommodated environmental quality as mandated by NEPA.
Waldon stressed that the Mobile and Nashville Districts were able to coordinate and obligate more than $100 million each year, a huge amount in the 1970s and 80s, and complete the waterway in 12 years at a total cost of $2 billion.
“It’s by far the largest earth moving project in the history of the country, I guess, maybe the world,” Waldon said.
The Mobile District constructed the southern 195 miles of the waterway, including nine locks and dams. The team from Mobile handled what was known as the “River” and “Canal” sections of the project.
The Nashville District excavated the northern 29 miles of the project, including the massive 27-mile divide cut, which connected the waterway with Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River. To build this navigation canal, which is 280 feet wide and 12 feet deep, it required the removal of 150 million cubic yards of earth. The deepest cut was 175 feet with an average excavation of 50 feet along the entire reach of the canal. Seven private contractors, using conventional equipment, completed the task in less than eight years.
Mike Zoccola, professional engineer and chief of the Nashville District’s Civil Design Branch, served as a young design engineer during construction of the waterway and worked on plans and specifications of excavation contracts for the divide cut. He said the divide cut was the high point separating the two river basins and there were some fairly large and deep cuts that proved challenging.
“The materials were problematic,” he explained. “The real problem was the stability of the slopes from an erosion standpoint, because it was sand. They tended to erode fairly quickly so getting vegetation established, riprap stabilizing disposal areas - that was a big concern at the time. We had a lot of large drainage structures carrying tributaries into the cut at that time during some floods that actually washed out. It was an ongoing challenge for us.”
Zoccola added that he would travel to the construction sites every few weeks, but at the time did not fully appreciate the project’s historical significance.
“But I did know at the time it was one of the largest civil works projects ever undertaken by the Corps of Engineers. It’s a pretty massive undertaking so I did appreciate that fact,” Zoccola said.
The Nashville District also constructed Bay Springs Lock and Dam in Dennis, Miss. Congress renamed the project the Jamie L. Whitten Lock and Dam June 6, 1997 in honor of the former U.S. representative who greatly supported the construction of the waterway.
Mike Wilson, the deputy for Programs and Project Management in the Nashville District, worked as a student coop and helped calculate the amount of concrete needed for various options being considered at the time to build the navigation lock at Bay Springs. He also designed one of the lock’s monoliths, a fact he’s proud of to this day.
“I began working for the district in August of 1975 and they were deep into the planning and design of the Tenn-Tom Waterway,” Wilson said. “And my first assignment, the very first day I started work, was to check the coordinates with the Mobile District alignment and the Nashville District alignment to make sure they intersected at the right spot. My calculations showed them to be six inches off, which for earth work was close enough. That was my very first assignment so the Tenn-Tom is very near and dear to my heart.”
Wilson said he also checked shop drawings of the drainage control structures in the divide cut for quality assurance and learned a lot about concrete design and reinforcement detailing.
“There was a lot of earth movement,” Wilson recalled, “so there were a lot of big disposal sites… so there was a lot of work to make sure that the area left intact was environmentally friendly.”
Wilson added that the Nashville District used a new engineering technique at the time to anchor the lock walls into the rock wall, a method that saved in the cost of its construction.
Today the lock raises and lowers barges and pleasure boats 84 feet and is the fourth highest single lift lock in the nation. A series of culverts were constructed in the bottom of the lock to allow the chambers to empty or fill in about 20 minutes without any turbulence or whirl pools that might cause safety concerns for boats being locked.
When the Nashville District completed the dam it formed a 6,600-acre lake that joined the divide cut canal that connects with the Tennessee River.
In the end, the two districts, 125 prime contractors and 1,200 subcontractors worked on the overall waterway. The 10 locks and five dams required a total of 2.2 million cubic yards of concrete and 33,000 tons of reinforcing steel.
The museum is located at 318 Seventh Street North in Columbus, Miss. It is open by appointment but is closed Sundays and holidays. The public is encouraged to go online at www.tenntom.org, call 800-457-9739 or 662-328-8936, or e-mail email@example.com for more information.
(The public can obtain news, updates and information from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Nashville District on the district’s website at www.lrn.usace.army.mil
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