BAY SPRINGS – Most water-going vessels traveling from the North down to the Gulf of Mexico would be advised to follow the mighty Mississippi River.
Romantic notions about Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer aside, there’s a bottom-line reason: The swift current saves on fuel costs.
But that current serves as a barrier for commercial and recreational vehicles that start in the South.
“Generally, they go down the Mississippi, then go back up the Tenn-Tom Waterway. That’s how we get them,” said Justin Murphree operations site manager for Jamie Whitten Lock and Dam and three others run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Originally known as Bay Springs Lock and Dam, the Whitten site near Belmont gets about 1,200 commercial users every year. That doesn’t include the yachts, fishing boats and canoes that take the 84-foot rise or drop at the lock, depending on the destination.
“It’s whoever gets here first, that’s who we let through first,” Murphree said. “But commercial traffic gets priority over recreational traffic.”
According to tenntom.org, a French explorer told King Louis XV in the 1700s that the Tennessee and Tombigbee rivers should be connected. The actual work waited until the 20th century, and there’s no record of the French providing any financial support.
After 12 years, construction on the Tenn-Tom Waterway finished in 1984. The Whitten site was responsible for $75 million of the nearly $2 billion total project cost.
“We get coal. We get a lot of coal. We get wood chips,” said Greg Enlow, lockmaster at Whitten. “We don’t get the long logs like we used to. Rocks. Gas. Oil. Fertilizer. We’ve had corn and soybeans go through here. We have manufactured products go through here.”
Whitten operators also see fancy yachts, fishing boats, canoes and kayaks. Every so often, a homemade boat needs the lock’s services.
Country singer Barbara Mandrell’s boat has waited the 45 minutes to an hour to get through the lock.
A guy with a boat registered in the Cayman Islands brought his multimillion-dollar yacht, along with a 20-person crew.
Owners of wheeled recreational vehicles, the kind usually found on the road, have been known to ride barges from Mobile to Chattanooga.
A water gypsy in a vessel called “The Beluga” used to make regular trips through Northeast Mississippi waters, too.
“He would sharpen knives for people. They’d be sharp, too,” Enlow said. “That’s how he lived. You have all kinds of people.”
More people used to visit Whitten. Until the early 2000s, vistors could arrive unannounced and tour the lock and dam that creates Bay Springs Lake.
“We always had people here. It sometimes got crazy,” Enlow said. “We had this woman show up buck naked one time, but you don’t want to put that in the newspaper.”
After some prodding, he said, “All right, I guess you could. She said she was on a boat and swam to shore, but there were holes in her story. Her cigarettes were dry, for one thing.”
Those free-wheelin’ days are mostly in the past. Whitten and the other locks are considered strategic sites, valuable to the nation’s economic interests.
“We didn’t have a fence before 9/11,” Murphree said.
School groups, Boy Scout troops and others can schedule tours in advance by calling (662) 423-1287.
For students who can’t get to the waterway, the waterway might come to them, in a manner of speaking.
The Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway has teamed up with the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Mississippi Department of Transportation to provide materials to schools. The goal is to use the waterway and its locks and dams as practial ways to teach science, technology, engineering and math concepts. Educators can find out more about those projects by calling (662) 328-8936.
Locks like Whitten are marvels of engineering.
“We had engineers from China come here and tour this lock to see what it would take to build locks on their river system,” Enlow said.
There’s plenty to learn for those interested.
“People think we use pumps, but we do not,” Murphree said. “It’s all gravity.”
To increase the water level, 45 million gallons spill in from Bay Springs Lake. That water shoots down the canal for southbound vessels.
“When they dump the lock, it will raise the water level a couple of feet,” Murphree said.
A horn blows to let people know when the water is coming, but it can be a surprise. Enlow once saw a fisherman knocked over by the surge, but he got back up again.
“It happens,” Enlow said, shrugging.
Whitten is scheduled for a maintenance closure in 2014. Commercial towing companies will be notified, and information will be published in yachting magazines.
“We do that to check the gates and valves,” Murphree said. “It could be 10 to 14 days. Sometimes 30 days, depending on what you do.”
That might encourage vessel operators to get in touch with their inner Huck Finn while traveling up the Mississippi River.
It would be only fitting. The waterway was crucial to national commerce when Mississippi River water levels hit record lows in 1988.
“We were a godsend,” Enlow said. “We locked more tonnage in six weeks than we locked the previous year.”
That French explorer who suggested connecting the Tennessee and Tombigbee rviers more than 200 years earlier must have seemed like a genius.
Check It Out
TO SCHEDULE A TOUR of Jamie Whitten Lock and Dam, call (662) 423-1287. For more information about the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and its locks and dams, call (662) 328-8936, or email
M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal